If you're dating someone with anxiety, it can be hard to understand why that feeling doesn't just subside, or why you can't fix it.
While it can be easy to take some of your partner's reactions personally (think: when they cancel a date because they're feeling overwhelmed), “[it’s] important not to discard the person," says Paulette Sherman, Psy.D., a New York City-based psychologist and the author of Dating from the Inside Out. (You know, provided everything else is going well.)
If you know this is a relationship worth saving, these strategies can help you build a stronger bond.
1. Take the time to learn about anxiety
You can’t fully be there for a partner if you don’t know what’s going on, so do your homework, says Kevin Gilliland, a licensed clinical psychologist and executive director of Innovation360. “Read up on what anxiety is and how it feels for people.”
There are different types of anxiety, Sherman notes:
- On average, one in four Australians – one in three women and one in ﬁve men – will experience anxiety at some stage in their life
- Between 2 and 3 percent of the population also lives with panic attacks
- Nearly 7 percent of US adults have social anxiety, wherein the fear (or anticipation) of being judged, rejected, or seeming outwardly anxious brings on acute anxiety.
Then there are phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, depressive disorder, and assorted other cues that bring on crushing stress. So yeah, anxiety can be complicated. But understanding what your partner is dealing with will ensure you're both on the same page.
2. Just listen
As you're learning about your partner's experience with anxiety, ask them questions like "So, you have anxiety, what does that mean for you?" and "What do you wish people knew about your anxiety?" Then, don’t try to jump in with answers or input of your own (unless solicited, of course). Instead, just be a receptive ear for your partner.
“Listen to them and let them know you care,” Sherman says. “Most people like to be heard and accepted. Sometimes just knowing they are loved and aren’t alone goes a long way.”
3. Ask specifically about triggers
As you and your partner discuss anxiety, work to form a better picture of what sets their anxiety off. “Be willing to learn about the triggers and what helps them to cope," Sherman advises.
She notes it can be helpful to understand what strategies have worked for them in the past, what a panic attack looks like for them, or characteristics of whatever type of anxiety they experience. Ask "When does it get really bad for you?" and "What has helped you manage the symptoms?" and, lastly, "What can I do to help?"
4. Don’t assume it’s about you
With that in mind, try not to take your partner's anxiety personally.It can be easy to see their panic or worry as reflective of fear around your relationship, but that might not be the issue at all.
“When first dating, it could be easy to feel rejected if they aren’t present or seem distrustful, but if this is what happens to them when they are anxious, it may have nothing to do with you," Sherman stresses. So, rather than assuming what they're feeling, ask.
5. Don't fear their emotions
There may be times when your partner is so overwhelmed by anxiety, they may act in a way that seems irrational to you (crying, yelling, talking in circles). But to avoid making the situation worse, keep calm yourself. Pointing out your partner's erratic behavior is not going to help them chill out or act more rational—it will only make things worse, and cause them to continue spiraling. (They're already worried that their behavior will drive you away, don't fuel the fire.)
Instead, take a deep breath, remember that your partner is in pain, and stay calm. Validate how they're feeling and listen to what's going on.
6. Find ways to mitigate your own anxiety
Yep, anxiety is transferable: A chronically anxious partner can transmit some of those feelings to you, according to Sherman.
“Anxiety is an energy and it can set a contagious tone,” she explains. “Even if you aren’t normally anxious, you may get caught up in the feeling of it, [which] could then trigger that feeling in you.”
But, vicarious anxiety makes it harder to support your partner, she adds, so try to “remember that this is their issue not yours," says Sherman. "Do what you need to do to calm down.”
She recommends finding tools to cope with stress and worry, like meditation, yoga, and progressive muscle relaxation techniques.
“Practice self care and take time to yourself as needed,” Sherman suggests. “You need to take good care of yourself, too, so you don’t burn out or become anxious.”
7. Remember: You’re not their therapist
This list of must-knows may seem like tips for becoming your partner’s best possible caregiver: It's not. Rather, your goal is to be as supportive as possible—but the actual legwork of managing daily anxiety isn’t on you.
“Don’t become their therapist,” Sherman urges: Suggest they seek expert attention instead, from an objective, experienced third party who can teach them coping mechanisms and dispense medication if needed. Be there to support them, of course, but don’t try to be their whole support system.
“Remember that you cannot fix them, and they need to address [their anxiety] themselves,” Sherman adds. “That’s what is healthy and long lasting and will also most benefit you, your partner, and the relationship."
Not everyone has anxiety, but pretty much all of us come to a new relationship with some form of baggage in tow. So exercise a little empathy, Gilliland recommends.
“So your partner has anxiety. What’s your problem? No, seriously, what do you struggle with in meaningful relationships and life?" At the end of the day, everyone has challenges. Anxiety is no different.
“And remember,” he adds, “a relationships is a never-ending series of problem-solving, and struggling with our minds is just one area."
This article originally appeared on Women's Health US