We all deal with anxiety occasionally, and when we do, there’s usually a solid reason for it- work stress, an upcoming event or change in plan. But what happens when your partner experiences anxiety excessively, and it almost never goes away? It disrupts your loved one’s day to day life and half the time neither of you can pinpoint justifiable reasons for the anxiety. If your partner suffers from this -Generalised Anxiety Disorder- then it’s a given that you’ll want to know how to help out and handle it properly.
As with any medical condition, a proper understanding of its nature is essential.
What is Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)?
It’s a disorder where the person who suffers from it is constantly and excessively worried and anxious. This worry and anxiety are usually difficult to control, and can be related to other anxiety and mood disorders. Someone can be said to have GAD when the person is excessively worried and anxious more days than not for at least 6 months. As you can imagine, being persistently worried can make it very hard for a person to concentrate on tasks, be productive and live normally.
People living with GAD usually experience symptoms like restlessness, irritability, nervousness, indecisiveness, constant tiredness, muscle tension, trembling, profuse sweating and so much more. On average, GAD makes its sufferers unable to perform normal daily activity 6.3 days out of 30. It also interferes with life more than any other anxiety disorder.
Understanding how triggers work and the limited role you can play
Anxiety can be triggered by external factors (like when military veterans get triggered by sights or sounds that remind them of battle).
“GAD can also be triggered by internal factors, such as particular thoughts or feelings. Sometimes, these thoughts or feelings are barely identifiable consciously, and it may even be the dawning awareness of certain feelings or thoughts that trigger the anxiety, as a kind of ‘warning signal’.” Dr Giac Giacomantonio breaks it down perfectly. “It is very easy to learn to fear anything we consistently avoid, and even a harmless thing can trigger strong anxiety because of what we think it means, or the significance we have assigned to it artificially. You may be able to help your loved one in avoiding external triggers, but internal triggers must ultimately be mastered by the anxious person her-/himself. “
The things you should expect
While no relationship is smooth sailing 100% of the time, having a partner that has GAD actually makes you twice as likely to have relationship problems. It also significantly affects your intimacy levels.
You should expect that you may have to take on more than your fair share of the household, financial and parenting duties. This is because some people who have GAD find it hard to get (and keep) a steady job. Also, household patterns that were set in place before may have to be adjusted regularly to make allowance for your loved one’s anxiety. Stemming from this, you may, at times, experience burnout or feelings of being overwhelmed.
Your social life may be impacted too. This is because when your partner has GAD, they’ll likely want to go out and socialise less. So routine social activities you used to engage in together will no longer be a norm.
Emotionally, things may become rough. Your loved one may become bitter or resentful towards you, or even try to ‘test’ you and your relationship regularly. Your partner may also feel guilty about feeling this way but at the same time find it hard to open up about it.
What you can do to help
Be very understanding. “The most important thing for you to understand about anxiety may be that your loved one cannot help it. It’s not simply a choice to be anxious; it’s not simply a kind of laziness that keeps people anxious.” Giacomantonio explains. ”Even if the anxiety doesn’t make sense to other people, or it seems very exaggerated, the thing to remember about an anxiety disorder is that the person suffering cannot simply choose not to be anxious 'on command'.”
Educate yourself on GAD. The more you know about the disorder, the better you can empathise and advise. Learning is a continuous process, so you should strive to keep updated and informed about GAD and things related to it.
Get your partner to treatment. With the correct type of treatment, people with GAD can still go on to have healthy relationships and productive lives. Let your loved one know that the best option is to seek professional help. Recommend seeing a doctor, who will then advise on the appropriate therapy and medication needed. “Psychotherapy is generally quite effective for anxiety, and there are so many different kinds of psychotherapy that most people will find a style and a therapist that suits them, provided they are prepared to search and inquire a little,” Giacomantonio explains further.
Be directly involved with the treatment, be encouraging.
Taking care of yourself too
Create and maintain a support system for yourself. It’s in your best interests to have people - friends and family- you can confide in and share your feelings with. More so, because having a partner with GAD can be somewhat emotionally tasking and having people who love you to stabilise and support you can do wonders.
Acknowledge your feelings. “You need to accept that you can at times feel irritated, annoyed, or even enraged at the other for his/her anxiety. And that these feelings need just as much acceptance as the anxiety in your partner.” Giacomantonio advises.
Get professional help for yourself. If you feel like the entire situation is taking a toll on your mental health, you shouldn’t hesitate to seek out a mental health expert to talk to.
Realise your limitations. You cannot solve your loved one’s anxiety by yourself. In most cases, only a professional can. “You should be clear with yourself that you cannot accept the burden of believing that you can solve your loved one’s anxiety symptoms. If you can honestly give up this pressure, there may be more capacity for unforced, genuine empathy with the suffering your loved one is going through.” Giacomantonio says.
Try to maintain an active social life. There’s a high chance that your social life will be negatively impacted by your loved one’s anxiety. Because of this, you should make a concerted effort to check this. Set up brunch dates with friends, catch a movie at the cinema, attend a show, pursue your outside interests and hobbies. Just make sure you don’t get completely preoccupied with your loved one’s disorder.You should also never feel guilty for going out and having fun without your partner.
About the expert:
Dr Giacomantonio is a psychotherapist with a special interest in psychoanalytic therapy. He has been a lecturer on psychoanalysis and clinical psychology, and a supervisor in the psychology and psychiatry training programmes at the University of Queensland, the Queensland University of Technology, and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists. He has taught on the subjects of Meta-psychology, Clinical Theory and Technique in Psychoanalysis, and Professional Ethics.
Tolu Ajiboye is a contributor to the Smith's Lawyers blog for topics including injury recovery and mental health. Her work has been published by The Guardian, NBC News, Health Magazine and Entrepreneur Magazine.