Is your partner a perfectionist? A bit of a control freak? Prone to seemingly random meltdowns or panic attacks? Do they keep you up all night with insomnia or active nightmares? If you answered yes to those, they might have high-functioning anxiety. High-functioning anxiety isn’t a technical medical term, but instead a popular term for people who experience anxiety, but don’t fit the bill for Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
People with high-functioning anxiety often appear to be totally together. They can be perfectionists, overachievers, list-makers. They can also be insomniacs, self-mutilators, and people who experience private panic attacks. Living with high-functioning anxiety is presenting a great face to the world, while inside your brain is wracking through a never-ending list of worries. Is the house clean? Are they angry? Am I doing well enough in my career? Am I failing as a girlfriend/wife/daughter/employee?
And for the partners of people with high-functioning anxiety, it can seem like nothing you ever do is enough. No matter how often you reassure your partner or tell them not to worry, they’re still stuck on that worry treadmill. It can be exhausting, upsetting, and relationship-ending if you don’t know how to help a partner who’s dealing with this issue.
Here’s what Dr. Gary Brown, a prominent relationship expert in Los Angeles who works with individuals and couples suffering from anxiety and depression, says you should know if your partner has high-functioning anxiety.
1Understand That They Didn’t Choose This
First off, it’s important not to blame your partner. “Understand that they did not choose this condition,” Dr. Brown tells Bustle. “There may be some genetic component to HFA as well. They are not to blame — at all. In addition, having HFA does not mean that your partner is ‘crazy’. [They are] simply an otherwise very normal person, having very normal but upsetting reactions, to a condition [they] never asked for.”
2Engage Your Partner
Andrew Zaeh for Bustle
It’s important for you have open communication with your partner about it too. “Create a safe environment for them to talk about how this impacts them,” Dr. Brown says. “Ask them two questions: ‘What can I do that would be helpful for you right now and going forward?’ and the second question which is equally important: ‘What would not be helpful for you right now?'”
3Boost Their Confidence
It’s also important to encourage their strength. “Without denying their condition, try to highlight the wonderful qualities you love and admire in your partner,” Dr. Brown says. “[Your partner is] going to need to build on [their] strengths to help [them] cope with all of this. Two qualities they often respond to are your encouragement combined with [their] courage.”
It’s also crucial to give them time. “To the greatest extent possible, your partner is going to need you to be patient,” Dr. Brown says. “Actively listen to them. Repeat back what you hear them saying.”
5Ask For A List Of Anxiety Triggers
Not sure what provokes their worries? “Maybe you can ask them for a list of the things that create anxiety and worry for them,” Dr. Brown says. “This one thing really sends the message that you are not going to ignore their suffering, and that you want to love and support them. Of course, you have to look at the timing — [are they] ready to talk about this now — or might another time be better. Either way, don’t presume to know. When in doubt, simply ask them.”
While your partner can certainly educate you about their own experience, it helps to “get education about anxiety in general and HFA in particular,” Dr. Brown says.
7Consider Couples Therapy
Another option? Getting help from a couples therapist. “Seeking professional support and guidance from a couples therapist who understands the impact of HFA can be very helpful for both of you,” Dr. Brown says. “They can often help you explore other strategies to help you both cope with this condition.”
High-functioning anxiety is really hard, both for the person experiencing it and their loved ones. But, remember: it’s manageable and treatable. You’re just going to have.