What To Do When You Live With Someone With Anxiety

Photographed by Serena Brown.
More than one in three Americans have said that the current pandemic has had a serious impact on their mental health, with 31% of people saying their coronavirus anxiety is keeping them up at night, according to a poll by PiplSay. Anxiety and stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic has also spiked in Canadians, according to Health Canada. If you are quarantined with someone who's coping with an anxiety disorder — especially one that's flaring up right now — you might feel unsure about how you can best help. Is it better to give them some space? To get more involved?
Perhaps counterintuitively, the first thing you should do is to check in with yourself. "[Nothing you do is] going to help at all if you're also anxious and distressed; it's just going to fuel the other person's anxiety," explains Neda Gould, PhD, a clinical psychologist, director of the Mindfulness Program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. 
If your own anxiety is keeping you up or disrupting your daily life, focus on putting the oxygen mask on yourself first, whether that means recommitting to your normal self-care routine or seeking professional help.
If your own mental health is in check, then you can lend a helping hand to your roomie. But first, take some pressure off yourself. "You don't need to feel like you have to treat the person or fix the problem, because for most people that's out of their control," Dr. Gould explains. The goal is to be a friend, a shoulder to lean on — not to come up with a remedy or solution.
With that in mind, start by being straightforward: During a calm moment, ask your living partner how you can best support them. "Some people try to fix the problem, and that's not what the anxious person needs or wants," Dr. Gould says. "They want someone to just listen to them." But others do want advice or guidance directly related to the issue or anxiety they're struggling with, she notes. In both situations, it's helpful to open up a dialogue about what they want and need from you as a support person and roommate.
Another simple step you can take is to invite the person with anxiety to go for a walk, bike ride, or run with you. Or ask them to join in on any other of your favorite wellness activities, like your mindfulness practice, Dr. Gould suggests. These sorts of activities can be helpful for anxiety. But the social connection alone is good too. So you can also just include them in your next Netflix binge.
Ultimately, though, there's no one set of rules that will work for every situation. "It comes back to your relationship with that person, and asking what they need and knowing that different people are going to be receptive to different things," Dr. Gould says. If you're living with your romantic partner, you might be more willing and able to go deep — to listen to them for hours, and help them confront their fears around triggering activities. If it's a roommate you met off Craigslist, you might help by offering up a distracting activity and giving them space when they need to FaceTime their therapist.
Also smart: knowing your audience. Giving the same advice to a parent or grandparent that you'd give to a peer may not be as well received. In other words, making TikToks might help take your friend's mind off of their anxieties, but it probably won't help your grandma.
If it gets to a point where your roommate's anxiety is interfering with their daily life, then it might be time to guide them to other online resources or have them connect with a therapist. And if there's ever a time when you feel like you're burning out, the loving thing to do is to take a step back and take care of yourself. We can't help get healthy if we're not healthy.

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