“My mind is always buzzing,” my patient told me.
New to the Bay area, the chaos of urban living created a bundle of stress for him, including longer work hours, financial worries, and an awful commute. Working in tech, he felt pressure to prove himself to the other engineers.
By the time he came to therapy, he wasn't sleeping, was barely eating, and had fallen behind at work. He feared he was losing his mind. However, my patient was experiencing the most common psychiatric condition plaguing young adults—anxiety.
A chronic case of never-ending worries affects up to 25 million people each year. According to the American Psychological Association, it’s the most common mental health condition—even more widespread than depression. In fact, recent research shows millennials are worried sick, reporting higher levels of stress than Gen Xers, baby boomers, or retirees.
Anxiety steamrolls over one’s sense of safety, igniting the fight or flight response. When the nervous system spikes into overdrive, we’re likely to experience tightness in the chest, sweaty palms, shallow breathing, and an upset stomach. The physical discomfort that anxiety brings can also dampen our ability to think rationally. Anxious individuals often see the world through a fearful lens, perceiving danger where it doesn’t exist. For the chronic worrier, life often revolves around a scary string of “What Ifs?”
“What if I lose my job?” “What if my partner leaves me?” “What if I make someone angry?”
My patient’s anxiety had become so intense he couldn't face the world. He began hibernating in his apartment, ignoring texts from friends and family for several days at a time. He also feared his behavior would push his girlfriend away. While she tried to offer support, she’d often say, “Take a walk, it will help you feel better,” and “I think talking about it is making things worse.” And these didn't help.
It’s not uncommon for loved ones to misunderstand mental illness. A recent national poll conducted by Kaiser Permanente found 75 percent of Americans feel they're well informed about mental health concerns. However, almost 50 percent of millennials believe you can get better without professional help, and 60 percent of survey respondents think depression is a personal weakness.
But, mental illness isn’t a character flaw. It’s a medical condition, requiring professional psychiatric care. Since most people don't have a background in mental health, dating someone with anxiety can be a true shitshow—full of misunderstandings and frustrated arguments. Often, partners want to be supportive, but feel unsure of what to say and do for someone who is going through a period of heightened anxiety. While it’s unlikely you can “cure” your partner’s worries, learning about anxiety disorders and how they impact romantic relationships can be incredibly useful.
Read up on anxiety.
Misinformation about mental illness circulates through our society, fueling myths about what causes psychiatric disorders. But, learning about the signs and symptoms of anxiety disorders can bust these myths, helping to dismantle the stigma that surrounds mental health issues.
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The Anxiety and Depression Association of America provides a comprehensive description of anxiety disorders, like generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias, and social anxiety. In summary, people with generalized anxiety disorder (like my former patient) worry about everything, individuals with phobias are afraid of specific things (like elevators or airplanes), and those with social anxiety fear interacting with coworkers and friends, especially in large social situations. Some of these behaviors might seem irrational or silly to someone who doesn't have anxiety, but be patient—you have your baggage too, I'm certain.
Educating yourself about these disorders can help you better understand your partner’s struggles, allowing you to separate fact from fiction. For example, many people believe that distraction techniques—like snapping a rubber band against one’s wrist—can help alleviate worrisome thoughts, but this self-help tool can actually make anxiety worse. While you might feel tempted to distract your loved one from their worries, talking can provide greater reassurance. People living with anxiety often feel ashamed of their illness. Letting your partner know that you’re not afraid to discuss their pain can be healing.
Know that anxiety affects relationships in a unique way.
“Everything gets exacerbated in romantic unions,” says Hilary Jacobs-Hendel, a psychotherapist in New York. “Because of the increased emotional bond in romantic relationships, we're more likely to play out our attachment patterns,” she says. Anxiety can also erase our ability to put feelings into words, causing us to withdraw from loved ones. Hendel says partners can mistake this behavior for abandonment, which can trigger feelings of insecurity, self-consciousness, and confusion.
She says partners can break this cycle by talking openly and using “I” statements, which invite interpersonal connection. For example, if you notice your partner withdraws when they’re anxious, you might say, “I notice when you’re feeling worried, you need a little bit of space. Would that help right now?” Asking how you can help without prescribing certain types of support is also recommended.
Talk, don’t text.
In the era of sliding into someone's DMs to start a personal conversation, we often forgo face-to-face conversations for digital communication. In fact, anxious individuals may prefer this type of contact because it alleviates social anxiety. However, Hendel says there’s a fine line between assistance and avoidance. And solely relying on technology to facilitate conversations can reinforce avoidant behaviors, making our partner’s anxiety worse.
Also, you can't sense or convey tone very well over text, so try setting some boundaries around texting. For example, when conflict arises, you could talk to your partner on the phone instead of trying to translate your feelings into that gray bubble. ”Face-to-face contact offers richer interpersonal connection, like eye contact, tone of voice, and facial expressions. These details get lost in text messages, even when we use emojis to express ourselves,” she says.
Practice some form of mindfulness together.
Studies show yoga and mindfulness can lessen symptoms of anxiety, strengthening the mind/body connection. Sometimes, taking a yoga or meditation class together can calm everyone the hell down (breathing techniques employed in these are unexpectedly powerful) while creating a bond that doesn't require verbal communication, which can be tough when in you're in the thick of conflict.
“Yoga and mindfulness deepen our emotional awareness, helping us to become more present,” says Melissa Whippo, a California-based yoga instructor and clinical social worker. “People with anxiety often feel out of control, but mindfulness can help individuals let go of the need to know everything by teaching us how to stay with difficult emotions.” While "staying" with a difficult emotion seems weird and counterintuitive, it can help build the tools to process them and then let them pass.My patient eventually found relief by practicing mindfulness and coming to therapy regularly.
Meditation taught him tools to lessen his anxiety symptoms, while talk therapy offered an opportunity to explore the root of his anxiety.
Juli Fraga is a San Francisco-based psychologist.
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