Language is important. As a collective, it seems we’ve come to use the word “anxiety” to describe any feeling of nervousness or discomfort. Everyone has some degree of anxiety — it’s the human condition and it exists on quite a broad spectrum. Part of that spectrum is normal and frankly, probably essential (more on that later). Anxiety can be useful but when it tips into more extreme manifestations of anxiety, it becomes unproductive. As a flippant buzzword, “anxiety” isn’t a useful descriptor because it’s not specific enough to explain what we’re experiencing on the spectrum from occasional dissociation, worry and self consciousness to clinical anxiety. So when it comes to dating a person who lives with anxiety, how can we offer our support? It starts with understanding.
A close friend explained that while they live with chronic anxiety, they actually don’t even like to refer to themselves as “having anxiety” because that creates a certain possessive ownership that feels more heavy than helpful. Instead, this friend prefers to name the specific feelings at play. Sometimes the feelings are very physical and painful. For example, “My chest is feeling really tight right now. My thoughts are moving so fast that my brain is actually hurting.” From the partner’s perspective, being blunt about these sensations is helpful because it offers context and detail for understanding. Plus, vulnerability brings us closer together and intimacy is sexy!
It can be difficult to comprehend just how debilitating anxiety can be when you don’t always see it.
If you are someone who does not struggle with anxiety, be mindful of those around you who do. In your efforts to understand their experiences and define anxiety, try not to make comparisons that undermine what they’re going through. It can be difficult to comprehend just how debilitating anxiety can be when you don’t always see it, but that’s just it — one of my best friends disappears for weeks at a time when they’re in the middle of a spiral. So, in an effort to be more sensitive and supportive…
Here are a few points to keep in mind when someone you love deals with anxiety…
Don’t make your partner’s anxiety about you or take it personally.
A friend of mine says that dating someone who doesn’t rely on their significant other for their sole source of happiness is really important because self sufficiency allows anxiety to work itself out without the added pressure of feeling like you’re ruining someone’s day. Neither you nor your partner is responsible for creating the anxiety so there is no need to assign any blame or even fixate on identifying a possible origin point. Locating the cause of the anxiety is your partner’s work. Respect your partner’s individual experience knowing that their feelings are not your fault and have nothing to do with you.
A single discussion can go a long way.
Without communication, nobody wins. Just like the conversation about sex (What gets you off? What do you like or dislike? How should I do this or that?) is necessary, so too is the one about anxiety. It’s best to address the presence of anxiety early on because the sooner you begin learning your partner’s triggers and cues, the sooner you’ll be able to recognize anxiety and develop strategies to navigate it smoothly. Ask them to explain how anxiety shows up sensationally in their body. Are there specific remedies that help them feel better? It’s not easy to talk about, let alone describe how something so complex actually feels, so try to be patient and really listen. Don’t listen in that “Every word you say, I’m relating it back to myself” way. No, listen like, “I’m hearing how what you are saying relates to the context of who you are and how you engage with the world.” Listen with the intent to understand your partner. Now, that being said, choose your moment carefully. Right in the middle of an anxious loop, when those loud emotions feel particularly overpowering, is not a good time to pry open your partner’s chest of secrets and demand an explanation. Ask for clarification when things are flowing again.
Ask what they need from you instead of assuming you know.
Anxiety can be unpredictable, which means that your partner’s needs may be entirely opposite depending on the day. Do they want to be alone or do they want to be around someone who cares for them? Do they want to be talked out of it or talk about it? Do they want physical support or plenty of space? These are the kinds of questions that could inform your shared tool kit. And if they don’t need anything from you, then respect that response and let it be. Movement, burning incense, and spending time in nature are other great tools for relaxing the mind and resetting the body, but your partner will identify their own supportive tools and you can, too.
Fixating on anxiety or over-emphasizing its presence often creates more stress than peace. Of course you want your partner to feel their best, but coddling or smothering them doesn’t exactly give them space to breathe easily. In fact, these responses often create resentment. If your partner feels like you might treat them differently, then you also run the risk of communication being blocked. The great Lil Uzi Vert once said, “Talk to me nice.” In this case, your best bet is to check in and then go on with your day. Instead of trying to “fix them,” empower your partner by respecting their time to reset. It’s just an off day and you’ll reconvene later. Keep it moving.
Anxiety is part of why you like them.
Reframe anxiety altogether. There is no reason to feel intimidated by it. Your significant other had anxiety when you fell in love with them and it’s a part of their personality, so in that sense, it’s part of why you enjoy them so much. It’s part of the reason your heart goes “awww” when you look at them. Interestingly, scientific studies have linked anxiety, specifically social anxiety, to high IQs, empathetic ability, and sentinel intelligence. Every human is complex and multifaceted, and we love each other the best when we embrace and celebrate each other wholly, including our sensitivities.
Above all, this is an opportunity to become more emotionally intelligent through learning to communicate more effectively.
Understanding anxiety will make you a better friend, more supportive partner and compassionate ally to your favorite people when they’re dealing with it. Love on, sweet ones.
Tune in for a new Love and Sex column every month on The Kollection. If you liked this piece, be sure to check out “Fuckin’ with Familiarity: The Do’s and Don’ts of Friends with Benefits” here.