If you’ve ever struggled with anxiety, you probably know that it plays a role in pretty much every part of your life. There are situations that can trigger an episode hidden around every corner, and it takes time to learn how to get through it all without losing your cool. (Metaphorically speaking, of course.) The people who don’t understand what it’s like are often quick to say, Just push yourself through it! As if it was something we could turn on and off at will.
Trust me, if anxiety was an option, literally no one would choose to be anxious.
It might seem like the one struggling with their anxiety is being unreasonable or overdramatic about things, but in our heads, the situation has already played out – and it’s not very good. We know it’s not always reasonable, but have you ever seen something that you just couldn’t unsee, a catastrophic image that you just couldn’t stop thinking about?
Even though you know the thing isn’t real, you very clearly saw it, and it gets stuck in your mind.
Anxiety’s kinda like that – every day.
Some days are better than others, of course – if they weren’t, there would be no point. On the good days, we can use our anxiety to our advantage. We can picture all the possible outcomes of a given scenario, and quickly determine which is the best option. We can predict the answer to a lot of things by a simple process of elimination. And some days, we’ll actually be able to talk ourselves out of our triggers.
But on the bad days, the anxiety becomes almost like its own separate person, and it sort of takes control of everything. When it comes to your love life, this can be especially frustrating. We usually know that our anxiety is the problem, but it’s hard to put it into words, or at least in a way that doesn’t make us feel like we’re being ridiculous. So, instead, we do our best to keep it inside. This leads to our partner seeing us as distant, when really we’re just trying to keep our heads from exploding.
I didn’t start to understand my anxiety until the last few years. Looking back, I can see many early indicators that it would be a problem in my future, but your mental health is often discovered in hindsight, and I’m no exception. Looking at things now in my later 20s, I’ve seen the many ways that my relationships have been strained due to anxiety.
Anxiety makes you feel like you’re somewhere else.
When we get stuck in our heads, it can be really difficult to remember our surroundings. Unfortunately, this sometimes includes our partner. It’s not that we don’t appreciate their touch – in fact, we often crave the physical contact that our partner can give us. But we don’t really think to ask for it, or to reach out for it, because our mind is on another planet.
Even when we do bring ourselves to reach out to our partner, it takes a lot more effort than it normally would. It’s almost as if we have to consciously tell ourselves to touch you. This automatically removes any sexiness that could be involved in the act of brushing your arm – it’s mechanical, not emotional. This disconnect helps it slip away without being done – the other things on our mind feel so much heavier.
Anxiety makes you feel guilty.
When it gets hard to reach out and touch our partners, rest assured – we’re probably aware of this. Anxiety makes it easier to connect with the negative emotions, and has us fully evaluating everything we’ve done wrong – which includes any length of time that we haven’t had sex. One of the worst things you can do in this case is to tell us that we’re being unfair to you – this will only make the guilt that much worse.
Of course, I’m not saying you should let your girlfriend’s anxiety run the whole relationship. You’re allowed to be disappointed, and you’re allowed to be sexually frustrated. But you need to be sure that you’re offering a suggestion, such as “You seem a little anxious – why don’t you take a little time for yourself?”, rather than a criticism, such as “We haven’t had sex in over a week – why don’t you take time for me?” While we’re still going to get the same information out of the sentence, the first is significantly less likely to worsen the anxiety.
If something feels like a job, we’re significantly less likely to enjoy it.
This is true some degree for everyone, but it’s especially true when it comes to anxiety and sex. If the idea of our sex life, by nature, causes us more anxiety, it’ll be more and more difficult to bring ourselves to want it. This is true for our entire relationship, and in many ways, even our career choices. Obviously, some days it’s going to feel like work – but there’s a huge difference between working for something and working for someone.
As much as your anxious partner loves you, she’s going to have a hard time if she feels like she has to drudge her way through everything. Your relationship needs to be equal – which it should be, even if your partner doesn’t have anxiety. We tend to stress ourselves out over things that don’t really matter to anyone else, and if we feel like our whole relationship is stress… We’re going to get frustrated and we’re going to freak out easier.
Anxiety creates an altered state of mind – and, by definition, you can’t provide consent if you’re in the middle of an anxiety episode.
This may be one of the most frustrating things for the partner of someone struggling with anxiety. If we’re in the middle of a break-down and our partner wants sex, no matter what we might think, we can’t actually give consent until the episode is over. The chemical reactions associated with anxiety cause tremendous changes in the brain, and – ironically enough – can make it where we don’t always think through the consequences of our choices.
Our anxiety may tell us that, if we don’t agree to have sex, it might destroy our relationship. We might feel that, if we just have sex, we’ll get off, and then we’ll feel better. While both of these things are potentially true, neither is necessarily true by default. It’s important that you make it clear that sex is not why you’re with us. It’s important that we feel comfortable with the idea of not having sex sometimes – because the guiltier we feel about not wanting it, the less frequently we’re going to want it – and, eventually, the more we’re going to struggle when we feel coerced into it.
We don’t need to be babied – we just need you to be there.
I see a lot of articles on the internet that suggest one of two solutions for anxiety. There’s a school of thought that thinks that those suffering from anxiety need to be coddled, and that they should be protected from the things that trigger us. There’s another school of thought that, since anxiety is literally all in our heads, it should be easy to just ignore it – if we don’t give it power, it won’t have any power, right? Realistically, though, the best solution falls somewhere in between.
If we’re kept safe from all stressors, the anxiety is just going to find something else to get anxious about. It’s not something that you can effectively erase, just by identifying the problem. There’s actually a lot of work involved with truly erasing a trigger, rather than just avoiding it. But the other side of the coin – pushing the problem aside and trying to “just move past it” – is also likely to worsen anxiety, as it makes us feel like we’re alone in the hunt for a solution. It makes sense that neither one of these options is exactly ideal.
So what should you do to help your anxious partner?
I’m not going to give you a single solution that magically erases all anxiety. It probably doesn’t even exist – at least, I haven’t found it yet. While the core description of anxiety is basically the same for everyone, no two people experience anxiety exactly the same way. For many of us, it’s even encoded into the anxiety that we shouldn’t let anyone help us – not that it’s something to be ashamed of, but our anxiety can shame us for seeking help. Our minds may repeat, “Your partner doesn’t want to hear about this – stop being overdramatic.”
This is especially true for those who grew up in an abusive household – there seems to be a strong connection to emotional repression as a child and anxiety disorders as an adult. We learned, growing up, that our emotions were something to be ashamed of, and this programmed us to hide all evidence of a problem. This can be unlearned, but it’s not going to be easy.
If you really want to help your anxious partner, it’s best if you ask her what you can do to help – and then take care that you’re not enabling her. There’s a difference between being there for her and “justifying” her anxieties. Chances are, she’s found some things that help alleviate the stressful feelings without giving extra power to her episodes, especially if she’s had a lot of time to come to terms with her disorder. For some people, human contact helps. For others, isolation helps. Personally, writing helps me – so I do a lot of journaling on my bad days. Over time, you’ll be able to pick up on the things that help, too, but it’s still best if you ask her – not every episode is exactly the same.