I’ve lived my whole life with anxiety, and many of my family members and friends also have anxiety — but that hasn’t stopped any of us from having happy dating relationships and marriages. Here are a few tips on dating someone with anxiety, gathered from the collective wisdom of anxiety sufferers and their significant others.
They can’t ‘snap out of it’
There is nothing more frustrating and belittling than having a panic attack and being told “snap out of it,” “it’s all in your head,” “get over it,” or “it’s not a big deal.” Know that when someone is in the grips of anxiety, the feeling is very real and often overwhelming. It will take time for the person to calm down — for some, this might take minutes or hours; for others, the anxiety might last for days or until the situation that is causing the trouble is over. Patience and support — not judgment — are most helpful at these times. Feeling pressure to stop the anxiety in a certain time frame only causes more anxiety.
You don’t need to fix them
I once had a wise woman tell me, “Remember, you’re dating a person, not a project.” The same holds true for dating someone with anxiety: the anxiety is not a problem that you should try to fix or save the person from. There is nothing more annoying than being offered miracle herbal supplements, new deep breathing exercises, or any other number of panaceas and directions from someone who has never experienced a panic attack. You can certainly be there for them, comfort them, and listen to them, but ultimately it comes down to the person with anxiety to deal with their own symptoms.
Since most treatment of anxiety involves changes in thinking and behaviors, the nervous person is the only one who can steer their mental health. For most anxiety sufferers, the condition is chronic, something that they will deal with their whole lives, although a person can be taught to deal with their symptoms effectively so that they are not debilitating.
Encourage them to help themselves by seeking professional help or a support group. It is not the job of a significant other to solve the problem — it is the anxiety-sufferer’s responsibility. If they refuse to learn how to deal with their anxiety, that is ultimately their choice.
Learn their coping techniques
If your significant other is comfortable sharing their symptoms, they may also be comfortable sharing their coping techniques. The best time to do this is when they are not currently having anxiety so that you can ask questions about what role they would like you to play in helping them cope.
In my own journey with this illness, I use cognitive behavioral therapy techniques (CBT) — short sayings that I can use when in distress. I’ve taught some to my husband who can remind me when I’m feeling stressed that “you can’t control the outside environment” or “feelings are not facts.”
Other couples exercise together when one of them is anxious, pray together, or do deep breathing exercises. Although the person with anxiety is in control of their own thoughts and actions, having a partner go through coping techniques can strengthen the relationship and make dealing with symptoms easier.
Any time a person opens up in a relationship or makes themselves vulnerable, there is an opportunity for intimacy. Listening and responding supportively — both when your significant other tells you how they cope and when they are having symptoms — can be an opportunity for growth.
Say what you mean
Clear communication is important in any relationship, but when dating someone with anxiety, it can be the difference between the person feeling calm or being nervous. A person with anxiety is often plagued with racing thoughts, a symptom that causes the person’s mind to jump from one idea to the next as they work themselves up with negative thoughts and dire “what ifs.”
Passive-aggressive behavior, playing mind games, or even sarcasm can cause an overwhelming string of thoughts as the person with anxiety tries to figure out what you meant. By consistently speaking plainly, it reduces their impulse to run through your words in their head, worrying about what you really meant.
Know your own limitations
If being with someone who has anxiety is too much for you to handle, it’s better to be honest and end the relationship rather than drag it out hoping the other person will change.
Dating someone with anxiety is not that much different from dating anyone else. Everyone has difficulties and baggage. You can’t fix or change other problems that a significant other has, and clear communication is essential in any relationship.
Remember, anxiety is just one facet of a person’s life. It’s not all they have to offer. If you enjoy one another’s company and the two of you have the same values, there’s no reason that anxiety should prevent a happy relationship.