If your partner has an anxiety disorder, you might think that the best way to support them is to be as kind and caring and helpful as possible. And you'd be partially right.
It's absolutely necessary to be patient with your partner when they're having an anxiety attack, and to understand that doing or being around certain things — whatever triggers their anxiety — can be difficult for them. The problem comes in when you're trying to be helpful, and end up shielding your partner from the source of their anxiety instead of making them face their fear, says Patricia Thornton, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in anxiety disorders and a member of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Being too nice and helpful doesn't actually help your partner get better, she says. In order to truly support them, you need to make them confront their anxiety.
For example, if someone is afraid of being around knives and they want their husband to chop vegetables for them, the husband needs to say no, Dr. Thornton says. "It can seem like you're being aggressive and nasty, but making your loved one sit with their anxiety is the only way to help them," she says.
Of course, that doesn't give you permission to be rude in your refusal to do the things you know make your partner anxious. Instead of flat-out saying "no," when his spouse asks him to chop the vegetables, Dr. Thornton says that the husband could say something like, "I know you’re anxious about using a knife, but you know that this is something you need to do to get better."
If the spouse has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and is worried that they'll kill the husband if they have a knife in their hands, then he'd still need to help them face that fear. In that case, Dr. Thornton says, it's important to also avoid reassuring your partner. That means not saying, "Of course you won't kill me." Instead, she suggests saying, "Well, maybe you will or maybe you won’t, but you need to do the chopping."
If that sounds counterintuitive, that's because it is. Many of us are used to doing whatever we can to reassure the people we love, and to help them avoid situations that make them scared or uncomfortable. But, in the long-run, doing things for your partner or always trying to reassure them doesn't help. It doesn't allow them to sit with their anxiety and then see it dissipate on its own, Dr. Thornton says.
She uses the example of someone who might be anxious about a mouse getting into their room. That person could ask their partner to check every corner of the room to make sure it's safe. If the partner does this, then they might feel relief from the anxiety for a moment, but it will come back. After a while, they might wonder, "Did they check my room thoroughly enough?" or, "Is there another way the mouse could come in?"
"But, if the person sits with the idea that there might be a mouse in their room, then eventually they realize that there’s no saber-toothed tiger coming after them. There’s a mouse, and it's not going to hurt them," Dr. Thornton says.
She wrote about this idea in a post for the ADAA called, "Anxiety Won't Kill You."
"Anxiety never stays at one level. It oscillates up and down, often influenced by what you’re thinking about," she wrote. "If you accept that you’re anxious, you are no longer fighting it. If you can stay in the anxiety causing situation or stay with the disturbing thoughts long enough and say to yourself: 'It’s okay that I’m anxious,' the anxiety is likely to dissipate on its own. And if you can take it a step further and challenge yourself to want to feel more anxious, then you are taking bold steps to conquer your anxiety."
A partner is crucial in this process, she says, because they can be there to encourage their loved one to go toward what makes them anxious. "To get better, you go toward it," Dr. Thornton says. "You talk to someone you don't want to talk to, you purposefully 'contaminate' yourself with the germs that scare you, and you get on the plane."
So, as weird as it can feel to make your partner do something that terrifies them, if you really want support your partner's treatment, you can't help them avoid their anxiety. You have to help them embrace it.