How to Support My Anxious Spouse?

A reader asks:

My wife struggles with a lot of anxiety. Admittedly, I haven’t always been great at supporting her with this struggle. But I want to be better. The problem is that whatever I say or do when she’s anxious just seems to make things worse… Any suggestions?

First of all, good for you for making an effort to learn more about this and experiment with new ways of doing things. Most people never even make it to this stage!

When it comes to being supportive of other people when they’re anxious, here’s the trick…

Avoid doing things that feel like the right thing to do, and instead, do what actually makes sense given the nature of anxiety itself.

For example: When someone we love is anxious, it almost always feels like a good idea to start giving advice…

  • Have you tried […]?
  • When I’m nervous, I usually […].
  • My therapist told me that the best thing to do when you’re anxious is […].

One of the many reasons advice-giving rarely works as a way to support someone who’s anxious is that it’s not really about them, it’s about you…

Giving advice feels good because it seems helpful. And feeling like you’re being helpful helps you reduce your anxiety about them being anxious.

But to someone who’s acutely anxious, being given advice often gets interpreted as there’s something wrong with me that needs to be fixed—the implication being that they are a problem that needs to be solved or fixed. And this obviously makes the situation even worse, including them now feeling a bit hostile toward you.

Of course, you didn’t intend all that. And it’s not your fault that they interpreted your advice like that. But if we’re being pragmatic here, that’s likely to happen, so best to avoid it.

Alternatively, one of the best—if coutnerintuitive—things you can do in situations like this is to focus less on their anxiety and more on your own.

See, when someone we love or care about is anxious, we almost always get anxious about them being anxious or the implications their anxiety might have—for them, for us, for the relationship, etc. And as we’ve discussed, when you’re anxious but not very aware of it, it’s easy to make unhelpful decisions because they’re actually motivated by addressing your anxiety not theirs. But because all of this happens instinctively rather than deliberately, the ultimate choice often backfires.

Instead, check in with yourself early about your own levels of anxiety…

  • First, simply acknowledge that you are in fact feeling anxious.
  • Next, validate your anxiety. That is, remind yourself that it’s normal to feel anxious when someone we care about is anxious. This validation acts as a pressure release valve helping you to feel a bit calmer and level-headed.
  • Now, validate their anxiety. Reflect back to them that anxiety is painful but that it makes sense that they’d feel that way given (whatever may have happened to trigger their anxiety).

I think you’ll find that if you can get in the habit of acknowledging and validating your own anxiety, and then do the same for theirs, you’ll both be in a much better position to move forward constructively.

🤓 Learn more about anxiety

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