Anxiety is unpredictable, confusing and intrusive. It’s tough. Not just for the people who have it but also for the people who love them. If you are one of those people, you would know too well that the second hand experience of anxiety feels bad enough – you’d do anything to make it better for the one going through it.
We all have our ‘stuff’ – the things that we struggle with. Ultimately, they are the things that will make us braver, wiser, stronger, more compassionate and better humans. It’s just the way it works. The difference with anxiety is that the struggle is more visible.
Whether we struggle with anxiety, confidence, body image – whatever – there are things that we all need to make the world a little bit safer, a little bit more predictable, a little less scary. We all have our list. When someone you love has anxiety, their list is likely to look at little like this:
It’s no biggie. So don’t act like it is.
In the thick of an anxiety attack nothing will make sense, so best not to ask what’s going on or if they’re okay. No. They won’t be okay. And yes. It will feel like the world is falling apart at the seams. They’ll be feeling awful, but they’ll get through it. If you’ve seen it all before there’ll be no need to ask anyway – and they’ll love that you know not to. Ask if they want to go somewhere else – maybe somewhere quieter or more private. Don’t panic or do anything that might give them the idea that you need looking after. Go for a walk with them – physical activity is the natural end of the fight or flight response, which is the trigger point of anxiety. Otherwise just be there. They’ll know what to do. They’ll have done it plenty of times before. Soon it will pass and when it does they’ll be able to talk to you about what has happened, but wait for that. Then listen. We all love when someone is able to just be there.
There’s a bit to know, so if you can understand everything you can … well that makes you kind of awesome.
It makes a difference to be able to talk about anxiety without having to explain it. On the days they don’t feel like they have it in them to talk about it, it means a lot that you just ‘get it’. If you’ve tried to understand everything you can about what it means to have anxiety then that’s enough. Anxiety is hard to make sense of – people with anxiety will be the first to tell you that – but it will mean everything that you’ve tried. They’ll love you for it.
Dating anyone is a challenge. Relationships aren’t easy and take a lot of work — we all know this. But there is a special kind of challenge involved when it comes to dating someone with anxiety.
When an anxiety spell is coming on, there is no reason to siphon; there is no way to calm down until you just do calm down. It’s something that can’t be controlled and it can be very overwhelming for both parties.
As someone who has been dealing with an anxiety disorder for most of my life, I can understand the baggage that my boyfriends are taking on as a result.
I’ve come to terms with what I have on my plate, but I never stop to take a moment to appreciate and comprehend the struggles involved with making a relationship work from the other person’s perspective.
All that you can do is muster up every last drop of empathy you can and accept the person you love for the way he or she is because, regardless of his or her challenges with anxiety, he or she’s still really great.
Anxiety is a completely normal physical response to a brain that’s being a little over-protective. It’s not crazy and it’s not deficient. There’s a primitive part of the brain that’s geared to sense threat. It’s all action and not a lot of thought and it’s in all of us. For some people, it fires up a lot sooner and with a lot less reason than it does in others. When it does, it surges the body with cortisol (the stress hormone) and adrenalin to get the body ready to run for its life or fight for it. This is the fight or flight response and it’s in everyone. It’s just that in some people (people with anxiety) the ‘go’ button is a bit more sensitive.
You’ll want them as part of your tribe. (Seriously. They’re pretty great to have around.)
Because of their need to stay safe and to prepare against the next time anxiety rears its head, people who struggle with anxiety will generally have a plan – and they will have worked hard to make sure it works for everyone involved, not just for themselves. They’ll make sure everything has been organised to keep everyone safe, happy, on time and out of trouble. They’ll make sure everyone has what they need and if there’s anything that hasn’t been thought of, well it’s probably not worth thinking about. Notice the good things they do – there are plenty. Let them know you love them because of who they are, including who they are with anxiety, not despite it.
Anxiety has nothing to do with courage or character. Nothing at all.
Courage is feeling the edge of yourself and moving beyond it. We all have our limits but people with anxiety are just more aware of theirs. Despite this, they are constantly facing up to the things that push against their edges. That’s courage, and people with anxiety have it in truckloads. Remind them that you see who they are and that this has nothing to do with that anxiety thing they do sometimes. People with anxiety are strong – you have to be to live with something like that. They’re sensitive – they’ll be as sensitive to you and what you need as they are to their environment. That makes them pretty awesome to be with. They’re reliable – to control for the potential of something triggering an attack, anxious people will go the extra step to make sure there’s a plan and that everyone is safe, happy and have everything they need. They’re intelligent – they’re thinkers (which is what gets in their way sometimes). They can be funny, kind, brave and spirited. So I suppose it’s like this – they’re no different to anyone else. As with everyone, the thing that trips them up sometimes (their anxiety) is also the thing that lifts them above the crowd.
Make sure there’s room to say ‘no’. And don’t take it personally.
Sometimes plans might need to be changed to steer clear of anxiety stepping in unexpectedly. People with anxiety will be sensitive to your needs (they’re pretty great like that) and changing plans isn’t something they’ll do lightly. Your flexibility will never be taken for granted. There are many things in the environment that most people think nothing of, but which can be the beginning of an anxiety attack for a brain on hyper-drive. Things that are ambiguous or neutral can sometimes be read as a threat – not by the person, but by an overprotective brain. People with anxiety are super-aware of everything going on – smells, sounds, people, possibilities. It’s exhausting when your attention is drawn to so many things. Don’t take ‘no’ personally – they’re never meant like that. Know that just because they might not want to be doing what you’re doing, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be with you. Keep offering – don’t assume everything you offer will be met with ‘no’ – but be understanding and ‘no big deal’ if you aren’t taken up on your offer. They are saying no to a potential anxiety attack. Not to you.
Loads of lovin’ never hurt anyone.
Be compassionate and be there. Talk up the things you love about them. There will be times that people with anxiety will feel like they are their anxiety and that they are a source of difficulty. (Who hasn’t felt like they’re making things harder than they need to be? C’mon be honest.) Specifically, I’m talking about when plans have to be changed, when you need to book a few rows back from the front row, turn the radio down, take the long way. If this is the worst you have to deal with in a friend, sign me up.
Anxiety can change shape.
Anxiety can be slippery. Sometimes it looks the way you’d expect anxiety to look. Other times it looks cranky, depressed or frustrated. Remember this and don’t take it personally.
Don’t try to make sense of what’s happening.
People with anxiety know that their anxiety doesn’t make sense. That’s what makes it so difficult. Explaining that there’s nothing to worry about won’t mean anything – it just won’t – because they already know this. (Oh boy do they know this!) They would have told themselves not to worry a billion times the number of times you’ve said it to them. If it hasn’t helped so far then one more won’t make a difference. Be understanding, calm and relaxed and above all else, just be there. Anxiety feels flighty and there’s often nothing that feels better than having someone beside you who’s grounded, available and okay to go through this with you without trying to change you. Telling them not to worry is as effective as asking you not to think about pink elephants. Really try not to think about pink elephants swinging from a vine. With flowers in their hair. Just stop thinking about them, those crazy big pink babes. See how that works?
Don’t try to change them.
You’ll want to give advice. But don’t. Let them know that to you, they’re absolutely fine the way they are and that you don’t need to change them or fix them. If they ask for your advice then of course, go for it. but otherwise, let them know that they are enough. More than enough actually. Just the way they are.
‘You just need to get over it,’ said the person who doesn’t get it.
Anxiety just happens and often there’s no real target. So if you’re suggesting they just need to ‘get over it’, the obvious question is get over what? If people with anxiety only needed a bit of direction to ‘get over it’, they would have given it to themselves and been over it long ago. Telling them to get over it is like telling them they’re doing something wrong. You don’t tell an asthmatic just to breathe. Tough love isn’t love. It’s just tough. Actually it isn’t even that.
Don’t confuse their need to control their environment with their need to control you. Sometimes they look the same. They’re not.
The need to control for everything that might go wrong is hard work. For the same reasons that drive anxious people to make sure that everyone has what they need, everyone is looked after, that things are under control and the likelihood of anything turning bad is minimised – for the same reasons you’re looked after – you might also feel controlled. See it for what it is. It’s the need to feel safe and in control of the possibility of anxiety running the show – not the need to control you. You might get frustrated – that’s okay – all relationships go through that. Having compassion doesn’t mean you have to go along with everything put in front of you, so talk things out gently if you need to. Don’t be critical though. Nobody likes that. Just remember, while your resistance might look more like a ‘won’t’ theirs looks more like a ‘can’t’.
And finally …
Know how important you are to them. Anyone who stays around through the hard stuff is a keeper. People with anxiety know this. Being there for someone during their struggles will only bring the relationship closer. Nothing sparks a connection more than really getting someone, being there, and bringing the fun into the relationship – because you’ve gotta have fun. Be the one who refuses to let anxiety suck the life of out everything. And know you’re a keeper. Yep. You are. Know that they are grateful – so grateful – for everything you do. And that they love you back.
Here are 20 very real struggles of dating someone with anxiety:
1. A to-do list is never optional.
And nothing on the list can go undone. If you want to have a rewarding partnership with someone who is dealing with regular anxiety, it’s important to understand that this person’s day-to-day life comes with a set list of tasks that need to be completed.
Freaking out that you aren’t getting enough attention, or that your partner is taking his or her responsibilities too seriously will only frustrate the both of you and lead to resentment.
The only way there will be peace is if your partner has completed everything he or she needs to do.
2. You need to learn to read a room like a pro.
It’s essential that you know when your partner’s freaking out and needs to be left alone and when he or she needs to be held and comforted.
These moods will vary and the only way to ensure you two are happy is knowing when you’re needed and when you aren’t.
3. You never judge when it comes to self-medication.
Anxiety comes with a host of anti-anxiety medication. You’re not the one inside of your partner’s head so you can’t dictate how much or how little medication he or she needs.
Sure, your partner won’t always get the amount right, but it’s not for you to judge, only to be supportive.
4. Everything is the end of the world.
Even the smallest of things can stress people with anxiety out and override their nerves. Whether it’s picking up their dry cleaning, finishing a project for work or making a call to their doctor, just the thought of having to deal with it makes their hearts race.
While you might be tempted to give the world’s biggest eye-roll, you refrain.
5. You will always have a drinking buddy, but hangovers are 10x worse.
But you dread the next day because it’s never a good one for anxiety. Alcohol provokes the symptoms of anxiety.
While your partner might feel better during said night out, the next day is sure to be a trip for his or her nerves. Herbal tea and long walks can be lifesavers on these hectic days.
6. There is no such thing as relaxing.
Relaxing feels like a waste of time. Being lazy wastes valuable hours that could be devoted to creating or working.
7. This person can be really manic and overwhelming.
Living with people with anxiety isn’t easy. Sometimes when they’re feeling especially anxious, they can be exhausting, talk extremely fast and have scattered thoughts. It’s best if you just try and listen as best you can to remain calm until this bout passes.
8. If he or she’s in the middle of something, you know not to speak.
When mid-task, people with anxiety are not to be interrupted. Their train of thought is set on something and it needs to be finished before they can pay attention to you.
9. You’re used to waking up before your alarm.
People with anxiety rarely can calm themselves down enough to sleep through the night. Knowing that they have to be up at a certain time will already have them on edge.
They can anticipate the blaring sound of your cell phone and their body will wake them up before it does. You know that when they begin to become restless in the morning, that your alarm is going to go off very soon.
10. You can’t act like you pity him or her.
People with anxiety never want to feel like they’re being pitied. It’s already easy for them to feel like there’s something wrong with them, like they have a flaw in the very foundation of their character that they can’t change. It’s important to treat them as normally as possible.
11. There’s no talking this person out of a freak-out.
There isn’t rhyme or reason involved in an anxiety disorder. When a panic attack comes on, no amount of saying, “Everything is okay” or “Calm down” is going to make it stop.
Accusing this person of being dramatic or irrational will only make things worse.
12. You have to be available 24/7.
If this person needs you, you know you need to be there. Even if it’s just a text back, this person needs to know you’re around to talk him or her down.
13. You need to learn to embrace it.
Don’t hate or perpetuate! The only way to have a successful relationship with a person who struggles with anxiety is to try to love him or her regardless of his or her condition.
In fact, you’ll have to learn to love him or her because of it. If you can embrace this part of his or her personality as a quirk, you’ll be better off.
14. You have to ride it out because there’s no cure.
When anxiety sets in, the only thing to do is wait for this person’s heart rates to come down and to be at ease. There is no cure for anxiety, so there is no way to make it stop without medication. You have to remember that this state is temporary.
15. You want to give advice, but you have to just listen.
As much as you want to rationalize this person’s fears and thoughts, nothing you say will make him or her feel any better.
You want to coach and help because you love him or her, but you don’t know what anxiety feels like, how crippling it can be. So, instead you just listen and try to be sensitive.
16. It’s not intentional, so you can’t even get mad.
You need patience you don’t have. He or she is the crazy to your logic. It’s important to try to be as empathetic as possible because this person can’t help that his or her brain is spinning out of control.
17. You can’t talk down to this person.
You will be sorry. Belittling people who are already inundated by feelings of anxiousness will only result in anger.
They aren’t acting this way to be childish or to get attention, they just have a condition and they need to deal with it so they can move on with their days.
18. You always have to make the plans.
People with anxiety do not want to make the plans. They are very indecisive and the smallest of choices, such as which restaurant, could put them off their appetite and even their entire upswing for the day.
You need to defuse the situation and just let them know (calmly) what it is the two of you are doing that evening.
19. Doing the smallest things will always be appreciated.
People with anxiety will adore even the tiniest of favors because they tend to become overwhelmed so easily.
When you know they’re freaking out, even making them a cup of tea comes with the highest of thanks. It’s one of the nicest things about them, they never take you for granted.
20. You know to steer clear of weed and cocaine.
These two substances are triggers and it won’t take you long to realize that they should be off the table at all costs.
Weed makes them paranoid and coming down from cocaine leaves their serotonin and dopamine shot and vulnerable to an episode, which is nothing you want to deal with.