Being in a relationship is always hard work. Add an anxiety disorder to the mix and you've got a recipe for… well, something potentially fantastic but with an extra icing of issues that can be managed and addressed. OK, that analogy totally fell apart, but the truth is that if the person you're head-over-heels for is prone to panic attacks, there are things you can do to help them feel more at ease in the relationship (and help you manage too).
1. Find out what works for them and make a plan.
While you never know exactly what's going to set off a panic attack, it's smart to find out what has historically increased and decreased your partner's anxiety, and what you can do when they experience it. Here's a good general guide to helping someone through a panic attack, but talk to your partner about what their individual needs are.
"If your partner tries to understand what's causing the anxiety and the nuances of that, then they could even help prevent some situations," says psychologist Sheri Fluellen, Ph.D. And it's a much better idea to ask these questions in advance than try to figure it out in the moment. When someone is hyperventilating or experiencing tunnel vision, it can be hard for them to explain what they need, after all (even if the best thing you can do is something as simple as getting them a glass of water).
2. Provide some options.
Anxiety disorders differ from person to person, with varying levels of severity. Everyone is different, but a lot of folks are set off by large social situations, so sometimes it's easy to mistake an anxiety-fueled response for rejection. For example, if your partner says they don't want to go to a party with you, it's not necessarily because they don't want to spend time with you. It's more likely that they have some fears around the idea of going to the party itself.
However, some people with anxiety disorders are extroverts who want to be at the party but just need a little help to get there. If you know they'd be into it if they felt safer, you've got some options to gently encourage them—without pushing, of course.
"You can give them an example of a time they didn't want to go out but went out and had a good time. And you can let your partner know that you can leave at any time, together," says psychotherapist Ilene S. Cohen, Ph.D., author of When It's Never About You. "
Or you can tell your partner that it's up to them, but you've made the commitment and will be going to the party, and if they change their mind, they can go with you. Just be understanding and patient without having to stay in too. You can still continue with your plans even if your partner decides to stay in."
3. Go rock climbing together (or whatever your version of rock climbing is).
There's a ton of evidence to suggest that exercise is good for anxiety, so psychologist Jane Fisher, Ph.D, P.C., suggests finding fun ways to exercise with them. Join a kickball league together, take walks in the park, go for a run, learn how to sail—whatever feels natural and fun for you both.
Relatedly, Fluellen presses the importance of encouraging your partner to face their anxiety, as anxiety disorders feed off avoidance and will never improve without some kind of intervention. "It's kind of a fine balance between not enabling the anxiety but also not dismissing it or pushing," Fluellen says. "A significant other could be helpful by gently pushing that person out of their comfort zone a little bit."
So… goat yoga, anyone?
4. Be understanding but set boundaries.
This may seem obvious, but avoiding telling your partner that what they're experiencing isn't real or that they should just get over it. If an anxious person senses that their partner is irritated with them or if their partner isn't patient with them, they'll feel less safe to discuss what's going on, which could close lines of communication—never a good idea in a relationship.
If you can just stay without them, without judgment, that's one of the best things you can provide—but it's not up to you to fix their anxiety. "You can listen attentively, let them know you're there for them, and aren't judging them," Cohen says. A couple of techniques she suggests using: Repeat back what they say, normalize their experience, or share a story of when you experienced anxiety.
5. Know you may have to work a little extra to earn their trust.
If you're in a new relationship with an anxious person, you may want to give them a little extra time. People with social anxiety disorders tend to believe other people aren't as trustworthy or dependable, which can mean that anxious people sometimes need more time than their non-anxious partners to open up.
"In the beginning of the relationship, there's the awkwardness of getting to know one another, the question of how quickly you divulge things about yourself," Fluellen says. "There's kind of this vulnerability dance that happens, and anxiety can extremely complicate that." The symptoms of anxiety on their own make a person feel more vulnerable, so give them some time while they learn to trust you.
6. Consider encouraging them to be in treatment if they aren't.
Your partner shouldn't have to deal with their anxiety on their own, but you definitely should not be their only support. Of course, it's up to the person with anxiety to take initiative to seek treatment.
But if you notice your partner struggling and they haven't brought up treatment, you can always ask them if they've considered doing something more about it, Cohen says. Asking questions, like "What do you plan on doing about the anxiety?" or "Do you have any thoughts on what would be helpful to you?" allows them to come up with their own solutions, she explains.
Going into therapy or going on meds can be really helpful but can also be a stressful process. As in most of life, a supportive and understanding partner can make it much easier. And if their anxiety is affecting your relationship, this can also be an opportunity to have an open and honest discussion and brainstorm some solutions together.
7. Do your research.
Fisher suggests familiarizing yourself with anxiety in general and what it can look like, as well as ways people tend to treat it. Anxiety disorders are medical conditions, so there are ways to manage it. If you do a little learning, you'll be better set up for long-term happiness.
"It isn't easy to be partners with someone who struggles with anxiety—and it's particularly difficult because none of us wants to see the ones we love suffer," Cohen says. "Just know that anxiety is a natural part of life, and the struggle is your partner's and not yours to solve for them.
"Try to remain factual and objective around them—anxiety can convince even the smartest people of the worst and most exaggerated scenarios. And anxiety is contagious, so it's hard not to get anxious ourselves when our partners are anxious. Just take a deep breath, remain present, and let it be OK for them to find ways to deal."
Really, like any relationship, yours is going to require honest (sometimes uncomfortably honest) communication, including discussions about each partner's needs and a dedication to support and encouragement.