For me, it often happens in the evening (though not always). It feels like a sudden Visitor at your door who comes in unannounced and spreads an uncomfortable, heavy, warm, wet blanket over you, gradually but quickly covering your whole body, and I feel it mainly in my chest. As soon as I feel myself covered, I’m very aware of the sense of unexplained dread that’s overcome me. Often my vision narrows and it’s difficult to concentrate on what people are saying. I can feel my heart pounding. My breathing is shallow. And it’s hard not to just sit there, paralyzed, and feel intense fear for something that I don’t know how to define.
Sometimes it takes a long while for the feeling to gradually dissipate. Other times, it just sort of leaves quickly, like it wanted to slip quietly out the back door without anyone noticing. It’s exhausting. And the most frustrating part, every time, is the nonsensical, illogical way the Visitor just comes and goes, without any sort of reason, at least none that I can think of.
Anxiety attacks are a beast, and I’ve experienced them for years. Every time I’ve had to deal with anxiety, my wife, Kristin, has been there right beside me, walking the road. She can tell when the Visitor is at the door because she can hear me trying to catch my breath.
She’ll gently ask me this, and I never find it threatening nor snarky. This is in large part due to the fact that we’ve had some very open and real discussions about what I experience. What I appreciate the most is her understanding, even though she hasn’t felt what I feel when I have these attacks.
If you are married to someone who struggles with anxiety, you may feel powerless to help them. Kristin and I want to offer you some tools and concepts to help you be a support for the one you love most when anxiety comes bursting through the door.
What Is Anxiety Exactly?
It helps to have a basic understanding of anxiety itself. Anxiety is actually a natural, normal process the brain goes through to help a person cope with stress. It causes an apprehension or fear of something to come, and this typically serves to protect a person from harm and danger.
However, this process is only made to come and go as needed. It’s not meant to pop up without warning and interfere with everyday life.
This unhealthy anxiety is ambiguous; it can feel differently depending on the person feeling it, and it reveals itself in a variety of ways. Many (like myself) feel panic attacks with no apparent reason. Others may experience a phobia of certain objects or activities. Some have an irrational fear of social situations or worry about their health.
Researchers can’t pinpoint an exact cause of this kind of anxiety. A mix of genetics, environmental factors, and brain chemistry seems to be likely, but this doesn’t exactly narrow it down. Therefore, there are a variety of ways professionals treat anxiety, from coping exercises such as deep breathing and other lifestyle changes to therapy and medication. (The Gottman Institute offers a great article here about using mindfulness to deal with difficult emotions like anxiety.)
This all can seem very complex to you, the spouse, who sees how anxiety is plaguing the one you love. And you might be wondering, what in the world could I ever do to help?
What Spouses Can Do
In fact, you are not powerless to help your spouse who has anxiety. Anxiety isn’t exactly something you can “fix,” but it can be managed. And as someone dealing with anxiety, a supportive spouse is the most important person to have in your corner.
Here are some thoughts on how to help your spouse deal with anxiety:
- Understand that your spouse doesn’t know why they struggle with anxiety. Even if they know what triggers it, such as work deadlines or having to engage with a particular person, the feeling itself just seems irrational. Even more elusive is how to get rid of that feeling. It’d be easy to put the blame of the anxiety on the person feeling it or to say, just stop feeling that way, but this is no help. As a person who experiences this, I can tell you that if I knew what it was I was doing that caused a panic attack, I’d immediately change course. And I appreciate my wife understanding this.
- Be present. One of the worst feelings—over and above the anxiety itself—is watching a person leave the room because they don’t know how to help. My wife’s presence is comforting and reassuring, even if neither one of us knows how to “stop the feeling.” Sometimes Kristin, if she is doubting what she should do, will say, I’m going to stay here with you until you tell me you want to be alone. And I can honestly say I have never asked to be alone during a panic attack.
- Gently direct toward some healthy coping strategies (and away from unhealthy ones). Again, my wife is good at this (she’s had lots of practice). When I feel an attack coming on, she will gently and respectfully steer me in another direction, maybe to watch a TV show with her or to take a walk. She understands the need to redirect my focus. Other good coping strategies include self-care, meditation, deep breathing exercises, physical exercise, eating a healthy diet, aromatherapy (such as using candles, oil, or incense), and spending time outdoors in nature.
- Talking it out helps. When I feel the pressure of anxiety coming on, Kristin will often ask me if I know where it might be stemming from. Sometimes, as we talk, we can identify some possible triggers, such as an impending work deadline or an inevitable difficult conversation I need to have with another person. My wife is really good at helping me think out what’s the worst that can come out of this situation? When I verbalize with her that the worst-case scenario isn’t all that bad, it helps to alleviate the anxiety. At other times, Kristin is also very good at reading when talking may not be very productive. This is usually when I’m in full-on panic mode and I can’t think straight enough to make conversation. In this case, she helps me with other coping strategies.
- Encourage rest. Exhaustion and fatigue are bullies to anxiety management. Getting to bed early or taking a short power nap in the afternoon helps me (I avoid long naps because it interferes with my sleep at night). I appreciate it when Kristin guides me to make rest a priority.
- If anxiety persists despite using coping strategies, it might be good to encourage your spouse to seek professional help through their physician or a counselor.
There are times when I have felt very inadequate because I didn’t know how to fix what I was experiencing. It’s easy to feel that something is “wrong” with you. And even more so, I’ve wondered just when my wife was finally going to be over me and this “problem.”
Kristin is very quick to put me in my place (in a good way). She assures me that nothing is “wrong” with me, that she doesn’t judge or think negatively of me because of my anxiety, and that she’ll be there no matter what to help me however she can. Without that, no coping exercise, medication, or therapy session would be nearly as effective.
You are in the prime position to be the main support for your spouse struggling with anxiety. You don’t have to “do” anything about it. Simply walk the road with them. Be in their corner. Encourage them. Be understanding. And be assured that your support means the world.
***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear your computer or device is being monitored, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship click here.***