Anxiety. This word might seem small, and, by its excessively popular use to describe worry in even its tiniest forms, normal or common. But anxiety is nothing to be trivialised, especially because when it recurs frequently, it can cause debilitating mental health issues. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) explains that anxiety is a normal reaction to stress. Anxiety alerts us to danger, and may even be beneficial in motivating people in small, manageable doses. But when this anxiety involves excessive, disproportionate, and even inappropriate fear, to the extent that irrational thoughts and fears don’t just dominate but hinder the ability to function, it’s a sure-shot sign that what you have is an anxiety disorder.
The APA suggests that anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorders, and affect around 30 per cent of adults at some point in their lives. There are several types of anxiety disorders, like generalised anxiety disorder or GAD, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, separation anxiety disorder, and even specific phobias, like agoraphobia (the fear of places and situations that lead to anxiety). And, anxiety disorders are on the rise around the world, including in India. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that around 38 million Indians suffer from anxiety disorders—and that’s just the number of people who acknowledge that what they have is a problem, and get help.
Lack of mental health awareness, stigma, denial, and limited access to resources are just some of the reasons why a person with an anxiety disorder in India might not get the help they deserve. But there’s another aspect that many rarely think of. Apart from a reliable healthcare system and accessible resources, what a person living with a mental health issue needs is a support system at home. In fact, in the absence of such a support system, most people with mental health issues find it difficult to access any kind of professional treatment at all. The encouragement, positive affirmations, understanding, and care that family or friends can provide often helps people with mental health issues the most.
But, just the good intention of helping out a loved one in need isn’t enough where mental health issues are concerned. The fact is, to be able to help others, you yourself have to be equipped to provide the right help they need. Here’s everything I have learned through my journey with anxiety, and of living with a partner with GAD.
A Personal Journey Through AnxietyI got my first anxiety attack when I was 16 years old. It was just a few months before the CBSE 10th Board Exams, and the trigger was my fear of failing in Mathematics—irrespective of the subject, I’m sure many young people will relate with the anxiety that emerges before exams we are told will be life-changing. I showed many symptoms of an anxiety disorder, including a sense of impending doom, trembling, hyperventilation, trouble sleeping, irritation and anger when asked about Math revisions or scores, and even avoiding the subject completely in order to escape the stress I associated with it. My parents—a sports scientist dad and a science teacher mom—did the best thing they could: they took me to a psychologist for counselling immediately. The fact that they never attached any stigma or shame to the way I was feeling, and instead chose to be positive and supportive, is something I’m thankful for every day.
The psychologist I saw didn’t just counsel me and share techniques to handle the anxiety (coping mechanisms that I still use when stressed), but also counselled my parents on how to handle my anxieties and their own fears stemming from concern better. The other thing we learned through this experience as a family unit is that getting therapy at the peak of a stressful situation only isn’t going to help. The mind needs as much attention as every organ in our body does, so going in for regular mental health check-ups is important. So, I’ve headed straight to the nearest mental health professional whenever I felt I was getting the same symptoms in the 17 years since that first episode. My family has done the same over the years.
Anxiety By AssociationSo, when I met the man I would later marry, I could immediately spot some of the shared anxiety symptoms we had—and also the ones we perhaps didn’t share. He is the responsible first child of the family who feels the need to look after others, to protect them from harm, and to provide. His anxieties stemmed, to a large extent, from being a man who understood the dangers and threats this world poses to his family. I have found that in the Indian scenario, consciously or subconsciously, that’s the anxiety that develops in most men. But, my partner understood himself well enough to know that some of his anxieties were irrational and disproportionate, and so, he too sought professional help.
As a couple, therefore, we were both open about our issues with anxiety. This openness helped, because we could establish the groundwork for the times when we need help, a safety net of sorts. It’s a work in progress of course, but we are committed to working at it. The COVID-19 pandemic posed a huge challenge though, and it was in 2020 that my partner was diagnosed with generalised anxiety disorder. Thankfully, many mental health resources are now available online, and we ensured we got the interventions and help we needed. The pandemic has clearly taught us that anxiety isn’t something you can avoid, and neglecting an anxiety disorder can lead to bigger problems soon enough.
So, if you live with a loved one who shows symptoms of an anxiety disorder, reach out and get help. Here are some things that help my partner and I manage anxiety better:
Don’t trivialiseSure, the anxieties of your partner can seem irrational or of little real consequence to you. But for them, the fear is real, so don’t trivialise it or say things like “it’s nothing” and “you’ll get over it”. Doing this can, in fact, trigger more anxiety. So, the best thing to do is to hear them out, break down the problem together, focus on problem-solving, and seek help if the problem seems insurmountable.
Show your concernIt’s hard to see a loved one go through an anxiety attack, but don’t cover up your concern. Express your concern through a conversation, without judgements or assumptions if you can. Avoidance is a sign of anxiety, so such a conversation can be difficult at times, but make sure you do have it so that your concerns get aired and this gives you both the impetus to get help.
Don’t avoid, empowerHealth issues, a loan, EMIs, job-related stress, or anything else that life throws at us can lead to anxiety. Engage in a conversation with your partner to find out what is triggering their anxiety, and then, empower them to face their fear instead of avoiding it (which they might want to). This can be done by making a simple checklist of things you can do to change the situation for the better together. This can also be done with positive affirmations.
Give them spaceWhen there’s a fire, adding more fuel to it cannot help. Similarly, when a person is in the middle of an anxious phase or having an anxiety attack, don’t add to it—even if you’re only responding to something unjust or untrue they’ve said in anger. Give them the space to calm down completely, then initiate a conversation about it.
Don’t assume, askWe often assume that if we love a person enough, we can tell what they’re thinking. This is simply not true. So, don’t make assumptions about the source of your partner’s anxiety. Instead, ask them about it. This little step can also help break down any shame or stigma you or your partner may have about mental health.
Engage in shared activitiesThis one is simple enough. Activities that can help you de-stress are very important, so taking time out for them is crucial. Choose activities that help reduce your partner’s anxiety but are fun for you too. This could range from cooking or painting together, attending yoga or dance classes, to simply binge-watching a new movie or series together.
Self-care is vitalWhile it may be that your partner is facing challenges due to their anxieties, and they need your help to get treatment, you should not ignore your own needs. You simply cannot care for another person if you aren’t well yourself. So, make sure you get the basics to stay healthy yourself—this means food, water, exercise, and sleep. Self-care activities can also be de-stressing, so check if both you and your partner want to engage in some together too.
Get help, togetherYour partner may be the one with the anxiety disorder, but given the fact that everyone has anxieties in some shape or form, and that anxiety can rub off on those close to you, your own mental health needs attention too. So, when you get therapy for your partner, make sure you get some for yourself too. This will also help you understand the situation better, through the eyes of a professional that too, and give you better perspective.