If you spend time with human beings, you know what anxiety is. Some people just deal with baseline worries and stressors, while for others, they worry daily whether or not they’re a head case. Anxiety is real. It has many definitions and wears many masks. For some people, they feel it when they’re in a plane. For others, they lay awake at night crying uncontrollably for no particular reason. Anxiety is diverse.
People with clinical anxiety can be difficult to love. Not because they’re unlovable, but because they’re…anxious. Whether their anxiety is environmental, behavioral, or hereditary, something causes them to overreact, overthink…and over-protect themselves. As a woman who struggles with anxiety, I sometimes feel like I’m impossible to love – I’m too much to handle, I overreact too quickly, I’m too clingy and needy. Just the other night, I went over to a friend’s house for pizza and when texted and didn’t hear from them, I panicked and almost left because I thought they were ignoring me. (Turns out, their phone was in their car.) They apologized profusely but I felt guilty. Anxiety is very self-focused. I am a burden. I cause all this damage.
If the one you love struggles with anxiety, I have a few pointers for you, based on how I’ve heard my female friends talk about their anxiety and how I’ve dealt with mine (sometimes in the wrong ways.) These small things go a long way for someone who often feels like they’re out of control.
1. Don’t baby her. If she opens up to you about her anxiety, she’s not asking for special attention or for you to treat her a different way. She just wants someone to hear her. It doesn’t mean you have to protect her from anything that might make her anxious. She wants honesty as much as everyone else, even if it might hurt her. It’s not about hiding bad things from her, but communicating them to her in a way that she can process rationally (for example, do not text her: “We need to talk later.” Talk now or don’t say anything about it.) She does not want special treatment. That will embarrass her.
2. No “fixing.” Just presence. When she talks about the things that make her anxious, she doesn’t necessarily want you to make them all better. Again, she just wants listening ears. You can bet that someone has preached to her before old cliches like, “Calm down! Don’t worry! Look at all the good things in your life!” She wants to look into your eyes and let her feelings out, and she wants you to be open and honest with your feelings too. It’s okay to just say something like, “Wow, that really sucks. But I’m here for you, okay? What do you need?” She is not a problem to be solved, but a person to be loved.
3. She will love the little things. Anxious people don’t like being the center of attention. A grandiose display of affection is not what she craves. Bringing a huge bouquet of flowers to her at work or decking her car with balloons might give her a heart attack. A good morning message, a note in her car door, or a quiet dinner at home will make her heart soar. Remember, she wants your presence.
4. It’s not you. If she’s quiet or distant, it’s probably not your fault. Never assume that it is because that can lead to murky waters. Ask her what’s wrong. She might not be great at expressing her thoughts, but she does want you to know. It’s okay to ask, “Have I done anything that has upset you?” She will (probably) quickly tell you no. But if it is something that you’ve done to upset her, she will want to talk about it. Just remember, she may not be great at voicing how she feels. (Usually in an anxious person’s mind, it’s always their fault.) She wants to communicate, but remember her brain is going a mile a minute.
5. Encourage her daily. This is a good practice for any relationship, not just with an anxious person. If she’s going through a stressful time, remind her how special she is to you. Tell her that she is doing so well, accomplishing so much. Be her cheerleader. Remind her that she is strong, hold her hand and pray with her. She will do the same for you.
6. Be patient. It’s not always going to be easy. People with clinical anxiety are at constant war with their minds. Some days there’s a truce and she may seem weightless and jovial, the next she may be paralyzed and reluctant to talk. It’s not because she doesn’t love or care about you. It’s probably because she’s scared that her anxieties will become real. Be patient. Sit with her, give her your time and your presence. She loves you fiercely but feels like she’s fighting a losing battle. She wants you fighting alongside her, not at odds with her.
Remember: she’s going to make mistakes, just like anyone else. Sometimes relationships can’t survive mistakes, and that’s okay. Those mistakes may be amplified in her head and she might think everything is her fault, despite how irrational that is. I’ve made lots of mistakes when loving people, and it’s easy to be held hostage by all of the things that went wrong. In all honesty, if you toy with her anxieties or totally ignore them, you will eventually lose her.
A wise friend once told me that relationships are rarely 50-50. Some days they’re 60-40, or even 80-20. Each person has different needs, and some days they have more needs. But one thing I can tell you about the Anxious Girl: she is always fighting, even if you can’t see it. On most days, she is her own worst enemy. She wants you in the ring, not facing off with her, but standing beside her and pumping her up for the fight.
And she’ll be there in your ring, too.