In the last part of our series, we addressed the symptoms, difficulties, and some of the potential treatments related to depression. Today, we’ll be tackling another extremely common form of mental illness: anxiety disorders.
First, let’s get a working definition in place. Like depression, most people will experience occasional anxiety in their lives, but anxiety disorders go far beyond temporary fear and worry… Instead, anxious feelings become extreme and ongoing, affecting an individual’s ability to live a “normal” life – impacting school, relationships, work performance, or even simple day-to-day tasks.
There are several types of anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder. Each has its own set of common symptoms, which we will cover briefly below.
These specific disorders have varying degrees of severity, of course, and some people may even suffer from more than one of them. As with all mental health issues, if you think you or your spouse is having a problem, it’s best to seek professional help.
General Anxiety Disorder
General anxiety disorder is often characterized by excessive and ongoing manifestations of the following symptoms:
• Muscle tension
• Feeling wound up or on edge
• Being easily fatigued
• Difficulty sleeping due to constant feelings of worry
• Consistently dissatisfying sleep
• Difficulty concentrating
About 3.1% of the United States population – roughly 6.8 million adults – are affected by generalized anxiety disorder. For many with mild levels of anxiety, most day-to-day situations are manageable, but flare-ups in severity can still prove very difficult. For those with extremely high levels of anxiety, each and every day is a challenge.
Panic disorder is largely defined by recurring, unexpected bouts of panic and extreme anxiety, sometimes with identifiable triggers, sometimes completely out of the blue. Symptoms include:
• Sudden feelings of panic and fear
• Difficulty breathing, regulating heart rate, and calming down in the midst of an attack
• Feelings of being out of control during an episode
• Fear or avoidance of places or people associated with past attacks
• Smothered or choking feeling
Like other forms of anxiety, people experience panic disorder with a wide range of severity. Some people find panic attacks brief and relatively manageable, while many others are practically crippled by the episodes, which can impact nearly ever aspect of their lives.
Some 6 million American adults suffer from panic disorder, many of them unwilling to seek treatment or admit to the problems – which, of course, only causes further anxiety.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety disorder, sometimes referred to as “social phobia” is precisely what it sounds like – anxiety related to and triggered by groups of people, social pressure, perceived opinions of others, and so on.
Specific symptoms include:
• Fear of judgment
• Difficulty speaking up or communicating with others
• Avoiding places where people congregate
• Feeling nauseous around other people
• Involuntary sweating, blushing, trembling, etc. when around others
• Difficulty making friends or meeting people
• Reclusiveness because of uncontrollable fear
Social anxiety disorder in mild forms can be hard to identify. Since many of us experience some degree of self consciousness, discomfort in new situations, and so on, people experiencing very real social anxiety may sometimes downplay the severity of their symptoms, thinking it’s just something everyone goes through…
Like generalized anxiety disorder, however, this type of mental illness goes well beyond occasional discomfort or feelings of anxious pressure.
Anxiety Disorder and Relationships
As you may expect, anxiety disorders can wreak havoc on relationships of all kinds. Not only is the basic discomfort of anxious feelings difficult to deal with for the individual, it can also make connecting with others extremely challenging.
First and foremost, untreated (or simple unmanaged) anxiety disorders of any type can hurt communication – one of the foundations of any healthy marriage. Because of physical and mental feelings of fear and worry, people with anxiety disorders may clam up, not be willing to discuss problems, or be triggered into deeper anxiety if their spouse is facing difficulty or has complaints about the relationship.
Similarly, emotional support can feel like a one-way street for the spouse without anxiety. A person suffering from an anxiety disorder may need a relatively large amount of emotional support, but because of the nature of the illness, may not be able to effectively reciprocate.
Anxiety can also hurt families financially. The mental illness, particularly social anxiety disorder, can make it potentially difficult to hold down a job or contribute to family income. As we know, finances are one of the most common things couples fight about.
Finally, anxiety can cause serious issues with social and family life. Each type of anxiety disorder has its own symptoms and triggers, but many of the difficulties are directly related to being around other people. Staying away from social functions, limited time with extended family, and other avoidance due to anxiety can lead to resentment from one spouse, and further feelings of inadequacy, stress, and nervousness from the person with a disorder.
What Can Be Done?
Now that we’ve taken a brief look at the types of anxiety disorders, as well as the harm they can cause in marriages and other relationships, it’s time get down to the important part – what you can and should do about it!
Of course, treatment is the first and most obvious thing to be done – but treatment for anxiety disorders is highly individualized, and to begin treatment, and affected person HAS to seek out professional help. Treatment, depending on the individual, is generally done through therapy, medication, or other alternative treatments – and often a combination is most successful.
As the spouse of someone with an anxiety disorder (or even if you just suspect that your spouse is suffering and undiagnosed), helping them muster the strength to seek help is critical. Because of the nature of the disease, it can be terrifying to subject oneself to tests and diagnosis, but without them, the problems will only continue. Your support in this situation can make all the difference.
Outside of admitting the problem and seeking treatment, one of the best ways a spouse can help their anxiety-prone partner is patience. It will take many forms, but patience during severe episodes, patience as they struggle to find a therapist they feel comfortable with, even the patience needed to navigate the day-to-day when you don’t know if/when anxiety will strike… All of this can help your spouse feel connected, supported, and more “normal” – which can be a relief.
You can also help your spouse simply by joining them at therapy sessions – if that’s ok with the therapist, of course. Occasionally, therapists will even suggest it! You can also do everything in your power to understand the mental illness – not just in your spouse’s case, but from a clinical perspective as well.
The more you know, the more patient you can be, the more behavior you’ll recognize, and the more prepared you’ll be for the worst times. With this knowledge, you can also help to create an environment that will minimize triggers, incorporates therapist recommendations, offers positive reinforcement, etc. The more you know, the more you can help!
Don’t neglect yourself in this either. It’s easy to get frustrated or burned out when caring for a spouse, or even when you’re on the lookout for signs of their anxiety. You can find support groups for spouses of the mentally ill, spend time with others as a “break” from the stresses you may face, and even spend some time speaking with a therapist yourself!
Anxiety disorders can be manageable, but it will take effort on your part AND your spouse’s. Treatment is the first step – and you may be one of the few with the power to help your spouse face their anxiety and seek the help they need.