4 Things I Learned from Having a Partner with Anxiety

Before this post was written, Bear had actually sent me a piece of her writing about anxiety, or more specifically, a recount of an episode of her anxiety attack, which she penned down at 3.18 am. I found the post too personal to be published here, so being the devilish, dictatorial editor of this blog, I have decided to write a post based on what Bear has written, and with my own views as well.

As the partner of someone suffering from occasional anxiety attacks, I feel that the onus is on me to be more or less educated on this subject. After browsing through various sites that explain anxiety and dish out advice on how to treat people with anxiety, including the “do”s and “don’t”s etc, I found the content informative, though sometimes contradictory.

For instance, some sites/sources would tell you to help your partner avoid situations that make them feel anxious, but other sites would advise against that. Some sites would encourage you to encourage them to rest up, exercise, eat well, and use self-help strategies such as breathing exercises, while some other sites might tell you that this is not being helpful.

So how do I see things? I would say each to their own. Everyone has their own coping mechanisms and it is perhaps the best if you find out from your partner how they’d like you to show your support when they’re going through difficulties with anxiety. But here are my own takeaways:

1. Anxiety is not just emotional, but it’s felt physically as well.

It is easy to dismiss an anxiety attack as a tantrum or a display of emotional weakness. It is easy to tell those who are suffering from anxiety attacks that they’re just being “special snowflakes”, or “strawberries” and prod them to calm down and buck up.

Perhaps some of us see anxiety as a deliberate demonstration to get special treatment, except that it is not. What’s closer to the actual case is that the people who are experiencing anxiety can no more “snap out” of it than they can snap out of a bad cold or a heartburn.

By now, it has become pretty familiar to me that anxiety takes a toll on one physically. During Bear’s last anxiety attack, she lay awake for 3 hours despite feeling exhausted. She could feel her heart palpitating against her ribs as her chest tightened and her breathing became difficult. Her head was heavy, and her mind raced all over the place but got her nowhere.

Having anxiety could mean a night of sleeplessness as she shifted from her bed to the sofa, back to her bed, to the sofa, to the floor, and to her bed again.

And it could also mean a whole day of unproductivity and heightened sensitivity, as she was on the verge of bursting into tears at any trigger.

The good news is that anxiety can be treated and anxiety symptoms can be alleviated to some extent. The bad news is that one cannot expect anxiety attacks to just vanish into thin air one day and never come back.

Maybe Bear will be experiencing the same symptoms over and over again and tell me about it. Maybe, even when we live together one day, she will still experience some sleepless nights where she shifts about, fidgets, and wakes me up in the process. Maybe a hug will be able to help, maybe it won’t.

Will I be frustrated if that happens? Most likely yes. Will I blame Bear for it? I’ll try not to. Anxiety is like a punishment on its own, and blaming her for feeling tortured by her anxiety is like rubbing salt into the wound. And more importantly—

2. How they act when they have anxiety has nothing much to do with their character.

On the days when the anxiety monster is not attacking (which is >85% of the time), Bear is the sweetest, gentlest, most caring and compassionate sugar cub that I know of (towards me at least).

However, when the anxiety monster does pay an occasional visit, my chivalrous Prince Bear Charming tends to become more callous and self-absorbed.

I often tell myself that she’s not herself when she’s battling with anxiety. Ok, technically, she is still herself, but I know for sure that the more unpleasant version of Bear is not the kind of person that she wishes to become.

If you happen to have a partner with anxiety issues, you will need to ask yourself a few questions:

  • Did my partner make a conscious effort to improve from their state of anxiety? Are they putting up a good fight against it through coping techniques?
  • Did my partner apologise when they cause me/others discomfort or inconvenience? Did they take steps to prevent similar situations from happening?
  • When my partner has an outburst, does it seem uncontrollable or did it seem manipulative?
  • Does my partner always attribute their shortcomings and failures to anxiety? Are they using anxiety as an excuse to shirk off responsibilities?

It is clear which answers point to one’s shortcomings in character.

3. Accept, not accommodate.

The acceptance comes in many levels.

Speaking from personal experience, I first came to accept that anxiety existed, and will likely continue to be this unwelcomed house guest every once in a while.

I then learned to accept its effects, how it made us irrational, panicky, unthinking or over thinking. My heart bleeds when I see Bear suffering, but I am trying to not let my own emotional pain overwhelm me.

I also learned not to associate the anxiety attack with myself so much. I slowly began to accept that it’s not entirely my fault, even if I had triggered the response to some extent.

After a few outbreaks, I learned to accept that it is neither within my responsibility nor ability to cure my partner’s anxiety, though I can offer comfort and support to some degree. I cannot simply brandish my imaginary magic wand and make Bear feel better instantly.

I also cannot help to get rid of or shield Bear from the things that are possible triggers to her.

One might easily end up being accommodating to their partner’s anxiety. In other words, they become extra caring and sensitive towards their partner’s needs, and they’ll bear their partner’s burdens, and go out of their way, as long as it makes the latter’s life easier. For example, taking an urgent leave from work to comfort a partner suffering from anxiety attack, or taking charge of all the chores and errands that may trigger feelings of anxiety.

It’s like being a superhero and a minesweeper at the same time, but it isn’t healthy, and may eventually cause the less anxious one in the relationship to burn out and break down. Or maybe, when the pressure gets too high, you will implode like the mine(s) that you have been trying so hard to avoid.

4. Self care is equally if not more important.

As much as I hate to say this, anxiety has a contagious effect.

If you’re close to someone with anxiety, you’ll notice that there are times that you will be filled with stress and worry, or even feel happiness drained from you whenever your partner is experiencing episodes of anxiety.

I have read “horror stories” on forums—accounts of people whose partners suffer from severe anxiety disorders. The authors seemed to be losing their sanity bit by bit as the stories progressed.

I myself have broken up with Bear before, albeit temporarily, and our inability to handle anxiety at that time played a catalytic role.

This might sound selfish, but I now compartmentalize a bit more, in other words, I mentally separate Bear’s woes from my own when it is too much for me to handle emotionally.

On top of that, I would still need my “me time” to do the things I enjoy without Bear’s company. When the interaction seems to be going downhill or getting nowhere, we call for a short “time out” so that both parties can chill and only resume talking when we are feeling better.

Anxiety is a bitch, but it’s usually the bitch who teaches us that we are stronger than we think we are.

On a side note, when Bear was describing her condition, she was not entirely sure if “anxiety” was the right word, or if it should be corrected to anxiousness instead. To be honest, it doesn’t make much of a difference to me. The general dictionary definition of anxiety is “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome”, though in psychiatry, it refers specifically to a nervous disorder that typically comes with panic attacks. I guess feelings of anxiety come in different levels and severities. If you believe that what you are feeling is anxiety, then it probably is. NEVER brush aside someone’s feelings of anxiety because you see it as just “anxiousness”, and therefore, view it as less important.

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