Finding the right words to describe how anxiety impacts you can feel intimidating. Asserting your needs in any relationship can feel daunting, but even more so when communicating such a personal experience. This article includes ways to talk to your partner about your anxiety, but these tips can also be applied to any trusted person in your life.
Connect to why you want to share
Why do you want to talk to your partner about your anxiety? Is it because you trust them and want them to have a deeper understanding of you? Is it because you feel like your partner doesn’t get it and you want to help them understand? Do you want to include your partner in helping you de-escalate your anxiety or panic? Has anything recently occurred in the relationship that has led to you feeling that it would help for your partner to know more about your anxiety experience?
Take time to reflect on where your motivation is coming from. The emotion of your motivation can permeate and impact the conversation. For example, if you are feeling angry that your partner minimized a recent anxiety response and now you want to set them straight. The anger can (and likely will!) be present in the conversation which could act as a barrier, keeping you from fully expressing how anxiety impacts you and your desire to be supported by your partner. It is valid to feel angry or frustrated that your partner does not seem to empathize with or understand your anxiety, and it is valid to want to express this to your partner so that it does not continue. Be mindful of whether you are coming from a stance of shaming your partner for not understanding or a stance of informative inclusion.
Connecting to your “why” can act as a guide in the conversation. It can also be a great way to start the conversation by communicating to your partner that this is something important that you want to discuss.
Example: “I want to tell you about when I get anxious so that you can understand what it’s like for me. It is really important to me that you try to understand where I’m coming from, even if it is something you’ve never experienced yourself.”
Reflect on the “what”
What is your experience?
The thought of trying to explain something very personal can be overwhelming. Before we can include someone in our journey, we need to have a sense of where we have been. Before you talk to your partner about your anxiety, take time to reflect upon your anxiety journey to this point.
Journaling is a great way to begin putting words to your experience. These exercises are helpful for you to reflect on your anxiety and identify what parts of your journey you want to share with your partner. There are many ways you can start this process. You can begin by noting common triggers for your anxiety, internal signs of anxiety (palpitations, shortness of breath, critical self-talk), external anxiety signs (irritation, tearfulness, difficulty sleeping, avoiding others), and helpful coping skills. You can do this through stream-of-consciousness journaling, or more visually, such as with a bullet journal or thought map.
What do you feel comfortable sharing?
Do you feel like in order to explain your anxiety you have to either tell everything to make sure your partner understands or nothing at all? There are more options than just these extremes. You can tell every detail of your journey with anxiety, but you can also give a brief overview of your anxiety. Anxiety about talking about your anxiety can create a sense of urgency, but remember that you set the boundary of how much to tell (or not tell). When it comes to telling someone about your anxiety, you can tell as much or as little as feels appropriate to you and the level of trust of the relationship.
Reflect on the “why” we discussed earlier, and identify what aspects of your anxiety you want to share with your partner. Reflect on your relationship and the level of trust you have with your partner and be mindful of your boundaries. There is a difference between sharing lots of personal details with a partner you have an established history with, someone with whom you have a reciprocity of trust; versus sharing this with a brand-new partner with whom you haven’t developed a strong sense of trust.
Enact the “How”
How to Set It Up?
How do you want to set up the conversation? If this is something important to you, treat it as such. This sets the tone and communicates to your partner that this is not something casual, like choosing what movie to watch. Ask your partner to take time to sit with you, away from distractions (including but not limited to: cell phones, TV, video games, music, computer, work, and other people). If you are feeling nervous, tell your partner! Let them know that this is something important to you, but that you feel nervous talking to them about it. If you want to tell them about your anxiety uninterrupted, set those expectations as well.
How can they help?
How do you want your partner to respond to your anxiety in the future? This is likely connected to your “Why” from earlier. You can express this by saying, “It is helpful for me when you…” or, “It is not helpful when you…” If you hate it when your partner tries to give suggestions to help you calm down, tell them that it isn’t helpful for you. If you want your partner to give you space or distract you when you’re anxious, tell them.
Navigating needs and boundaries in a relationship is inevitable. Expressing your needs requires trust and vulnerability in the relationship. People have varying reactions to vulnerability, from welcoming it to avoidance and feeling shame. Vulnerability should not be synonymous with impending danger and doom. It communicates that we are in a state of possible emotional and relational growth and newness. Vulnerability is something that should be honored. It reminds us that what we are sharing something valuable in a relationship, and to ensure that the level of trust in the relationship is commensurate to the level of vulnerability.