How significant others can help their mentally ill partners with anxiety and depression

It’s a common theme among those of us with depression and anxiety. Our partners care, we know they do–but sometimes they don’t understand.

They may not have much experience with people who have depression, anxiety, or PTSD. Or maybe they’re the nerdy type who rely on facts more and don’t really “get” those emotional extremes. To be honest, I often don’t know why I’m feeling or thinking that way, either.

  1. We’re not looking for you to fix things. Sometimes we just need to vent. Sometimes it’s just a waiting period–depression and anxiety can come and go over the period of a few minutes to a few weeks. It might just be part of our mental cycle–it doesn’t always mean medicine isn’t working or we need more therapy. Sometimes we do, but after a while, we know what we need and don’t need. And usually we just need patience.
  2. Understand spoon theory. Sometimes we get depressed and have such great difficulty doing things we start using spoon theory to ration our energy. It’s weird to have to ration energy. It’s frustrating. When we move into this territory, we need more patience and help. If I usually do dinner, offer to do dinner, prepare something the night before, make sure there are leftovers, or do carry out. (Eating out is out of the question–that takes up about as many spoons as making dinner, if not more.)
  3. Understand the PTSD cup theory. It’s applicable to just general anxiety, too, but PTSD is definitely a compounding factor. We have to mindful of our anxiety levels before we add on any more stresses. Even just going to the store for milk after work is too much anxiety and stress some days. We just need to get home and decompress before we implode.
  4. We have often difficulty making decisions when anxious and depressedIt’s okay to ask what we want for dinner, for example, but don’t keep asking. At a certain point, just decide and do it for us. Some of us may need you to ask “Is it okay for me to make the decision?” Some of us don’t. Any major decisions beyond food or activity should wait until we are in a better place.
  5. Corollary: We NEED to make decisions when anxious. Some of us with anxiety need to stay in control in order to feel in control of our anxiety. I’m not one of those people, but perhaps your significant other is. Ask what helps (especially when you both are in a calm place).
  6. We have no control over our depression. We can’t just get over it. I’m fortunate I haven’t heard this from my husband, but some people have from their significant others. It’s not the kind of depression you get when something doesn’t go your way, you stew for a bit, then you get better. It clings to us, lingers, weighs us down. If we could just have surgery and excise it, that would be amazing. But it doesn’t work that way. It’s why we go to therapy and take medicine and learn how to do coping activities and healing activities.
  7. We have no control over our anxieties. Anxiety is weird. Depression, I guess some people can understand. Depression is like when the flu beats up you with a stick and runs over you like an 18 wheeler–it’s that same feeling. But describing anxiety? I can’t explain why I have intrusive thoughts about wanting to break my legs (but I don’t! I really don’t!)  and why that makes me so anxious. I know the bus is not likely to crash, but my heart still pounds and my brain ruminates. And sometimes I have no idea why I get panic attacks. Sometimes they just come on, unbidden, sending us into fight-flight-freeze and we can’t snap out of it.It took time, but when I start texting my husband and I’m overwhelmed by the smallest thing, he now knows that’s when to carry out dinner, and remind me to take my anxiety medication, and tells me not to worry about the dishes, he’ll do that when he gets home. It’s his way of telling me (and my way of hearing things) to go ahead and sit down and wait it out.
  8. Anxiety drops your IQ by 30-50 points. What a lovely fact my therapist keeps reminding me of, although I am unable to find the specific citation. It’s kind of insulting in a way–we get stupid when we get anxious. But it’s true. For me, it’s kind of like the sort of decisions you might make after 2-3 glasses of wine without the accompanying drunkeness to hold you back. In fact, anxiety may be driving us forward. Maybe it’s why you came home and there’s 1 more cat than when you left.  Give us time to calm down before having a serious discussion, or before setting some boundaries. “You know, hun, it seems like you want to go shopping when anxious. Let’s shop together next time.” or “I appreciate you wanting to fix up the house, but painting the living room is such a big task–I will help you finish this, but next time, please ask before doing major home improvement since that will help me feel less anxious about your own anxieties.”
  9. Don’t say, “Calm down.” It has the exact opposite effect. Try validation techniques instead. It tells us our emotions are real, and that actually does help us calm down. It’s odd, I know, if you haven’t quite experienced that yourself. And sometimes we just need to get it out of our system.
  10. Please don’t walk on eggshells around us. We know you are probably afraid of upsetting us, or upsetting us further when we are already somewhat distressed, but when you walk on eggshells, it has the opposite effect and we start worrying about you and getting more anxious and that compounds the entire thing. Be yourself. Be patient. Keep doing things as you normally do, and eventually we’ll join you when we can. We just need a supportive and loving environment for our best healing. Eggshells represent a breakdown in communication and that is distressing.
  11. Keep communicating. Sometimes the best thing you can say is, “Let me know how I can help.” We may not  know how you can help–but it’s nice to know that option is there. “Would it help if I did dinner tonight?” “Would it help if I took the little one out for a walk so you can take a bath and decompress?” Also, use I statements when necessary. “I feel really anxious when you do this–could you please do this instead? It would help me understand how to help you better.”

For those of you with mental illnesses, please share other things you wish your significant other knew. For the significant others, please share what you’ve learned, so it might help others. Just  comment below, and I will make another post.

Part 2


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