All this hand washing, mask wearing and food hoarding can be triggering for people with tendencies to obsess. You might see an anxious partner do something minor like “double” washing hands for 40 seconds — or experience something larger such as uncertainty about whether the tightness in their chest is a sign of covid-19. There also could be changes in appetite, sleep and irritability.
Your partner or spouse might be bottling up these thoughts and tendencies. Or they might be talking about them nonstop.
If you think your partner is experiencing high levels of anxiety, what can you do to help?
Acknowledge anxiety is not all bad. It has its benefits.
Anxious people often feel a sense of shame and see it as a weakness, but they have many strengths, too. Anxiety has evolutionary advantages, such as being hypervigilant and always scanning the environment for danger, or forgoing food or sleep to solve a problem. There is evidence that having some highly anxious people in a tribe is advantageous. Anxious people can be quicker to mobilize in an emergency, and may have better empathic accuracy.
When anxiety is recast as a strength, people are more open to learning skills for channeling it in helpful directions.
Do something fun and new together
Humans are wired so that when we feel loved and connected, we also feel safe and secure.
Even though it seems counterintuitive, simple, unfamiliar activities with a bit of a challenge can produce this connection more than familiar activities. Try branching out into activities in which everyone involved is a beginner. My spouse, our 4-year-old and I recently attempted to make puppies out of modeling clay for this miniature puppy training school. Our first efforts were pretty comical, but we got better at it and the friendly competition we cooked up was fun and absorbing.
New and moderately challenging activities can take your mind off worries and provide a sense of exploration, which everyone needs when we’re stuck at home. Research shows that navigating mild, novel, quirky obstacles together results in couples feeling more satisfied with their relationship.
People write off these types of strategies as too simple to help with severe anxiety, but they work.
Support physical activity
Anxiety and fear tend to be energizing (whereas depression saps energy). If you don’t move your body, that excess energy has nowhere to go and can leave you feeling wound up or cause difficulty in sleeping.
Family rituals of getting active will help everyone feel a sense of well-being. If you and your partner are not into regular exercise, consider trying a program like Couch to 5K together or a seven-minute workout. If one of you needs to be home watching the kids or working while the other exercises, make it happen so you both can stay active.
Restorative yoga (which involves supported lying down and doesn’t resemble exercise) can be useful if your partner feels overwhelmed with emotions and needs a management strategy.
Maintain a daily routine together
Daily routines help us regulate our moods. Consistent rhythms of eating, sleeping, working and relaxing at regular times are an important part of treatment for bipolar and other disorders. It helps with anxiety, too. Sometimes anxious people suppress their own needs, such as for food or sleep, while they attempt to solve whatever problem is top of their mind. They are not usually aware of this link.
That is obviously counterproductive, so you can help your anxious partner by keeping consistent routines. Be ready when the two of you have agreed you’ll go for a walk together or start making dinner together at a certain time. Maintain a distinction between the week and the weekend by having some weekend activities. That can be a challenge since all the days seem the same when you’re stuck in the house, but try making homemade pizza or playing hopscotch together outside. And call friends or relatives to catch up and check in.
Have boundaries around coronavirus-related talk
Bottling up distressed thoughts and emotions is unhealthy, but so is talking about them nonstop. Have agreed-upon times to watch or read news and then debrief each other about what is worrying. Find a rhythm of having a couple of times or activities per day that are open for coronavirus chat. That could be, for example, while making lunch and while cleaning up from dinner, so that no one is bottling up their thoughts too long. This is not something that needs strict enforcement, but some regularity is helpful. If you’re going to watch endless news coverage, use headphones.
When you do talk, decide together whether a worry needs some practical problem solving or whether it’s better to accept that you don’t have control over that particular thing. For example, you explained to your relative why it’s a bad idea to get on an airplane now (practical problem solving), but if she does it anyway (out of your control), you have to accept it.
When someone is anxious, it’s best to emphasize their ability to cope with problems rather than reassure them their fear won’t come to pass. Making a specific coping plan will soothe rather than accelerate anxiety. For example, “Let’s make a practical plan for what we would do if one of us started showing symptoms.”
Notice what seems to work for your partner, or ask them what kind of support they’d prefer. Anxious people who worry about being abandoned or their emotions overwhelming others typically like support that emphasizes that you will get through difficult situations together.
Find other topics of conversation that help you feel close to each other, like stories from childhood you’ve never told each other. Human connection and the sense of your partner being a safe, reliable base amid a storm are powerful antidotes to anxiety.
Curb rash decision-making
There are times when one person’s anxiety impacts their partner’s security, like if one wants to sell all joint investments. Partners help each other make good decisions during highly anxious times. If one partner is not replenishing medication while in isolation, the other should help them make a responsible decision. Partners shouldn’t jeopardize their own security by giving into rash impulses, like selling off all investments, but instead approach it as an anxiety management issue. For example, “How can we best manage how stressful it is to see our investment accounts down over 20 percent?”
Helping someone who is anxious isn’t easy, especially if you’re also feeling anxious yourself. While people are feeling helpless and stuck in their homes, remember that there are plenty of ways to manage it. Also remember that sooner or later (hopefully sooner), life will be back to normal.
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