What to do with me when I’m anxious: a guide for partners and loved ones

My sister sent me this a few weeks back, which I’m sure many of you have seen by now. I love that this woman made a list of ways that her partner can help her deal with her panic attacks. I made one of these for myself a long time ago, but it got me thinking: should I make one for the dude? Would that be helpful for him?

So, I asked, and we had a conversation about it. We both agree that the dude’s got a pretty good handle on recognizing if I’m anxious and almost always knows what to do to help, and we also think that this is a helpful exercise for both of us, so here I am. Keep in mind that this is what I need, and may not be what’s helpful for you. I’ve written before about what panic attacks are like for me, but you may want to check in with your partner – when they’re NOT in the middle of one – and ask them about their experience.

So, without further ado, what you can do to help:

  1. Ask if you can help me. Simple. Just say “You seem anxious. Is there anything I can do for you?” If it’s not too bad, or if I know what I need, I’ll tell you. If I can handle it on my own, I’ll let you know that, too.
  2. Don’t take it personally. This has NOTHING to do with you, so please don’t be annoyed or irritated when I don’t respond to your jokes or your questions or whatever you’re doing. I’m not doing this because I want attention; this is the worst thing I’ve ever experienced – worse than grief or physical pain – and I feel like I don’t even know who I am.
  3. Be nice and listen. If I’m asking you to stop what you’re doing to help me, it’s because I can’t help myself. I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t really, really bad. If I’m asking you to leave me alone, it’s because I need to ugly cry and I’m embarrassed to do it in front of you/I don’t want you to watch me throw up/I can’t stand physical contact/etc. It’s not you. You are amazing and I know that even if what I’m doing indicates otherwise.
  4. Don’t ask me a million questions. We often have memory and/or concentration issues during an attack, so don’t present a lot of choices for me to make or ask me a lot of questions. I honestly can’t think about anything beyond am I dying? What if this doesn’t stop? oh my god oh my god oh my god.
  5. If we’ve talked before about things that work for me, quietly do them. If you know I usually feel nauseous or like going to the bathroom, bring me whatever meds I like to take. Bring me a glass of water. Bring me some crackers. Bring me my weighted blanket. I may not take it immediately, but I promise that that gesture does not go unappreciated and often it reminds me that I’m not impotent and that there are things I can do to help myself.
  6. If it’s really bad, remind me that this has happened before. Gently say something like “this is not your new normal. You’ve done this before. Just let it happen.” But don’t talk and talk and talk because sometimes sensory input (light/sound/touch) is too much.
  7. If we’re not at home, get me there asap. Panic and anxiety escalate because we’re trying to hide what’s happening. We’re fighting it and trying to suppress it, and that creates more tension and worry, which escalates the attack. This is hard enough when I’m alone because I hate admitting, even to myself, that I’m not ok. In public? NOPE. SO AWFUL. If I’m ok to go home by myself, let me go and don’t be resentful of my leaving(I don’t want to leave. I really don’t. Especially if  the event we’re at is important to you or me or both of us). If we can both leave, let’s go and don’t be resentful. It would take wild horses to drag out of me that I want you to come home with me and comfort me – because in my brain that’s a selfish thing to do and being selfish is the worst – but I usually DO want you to come with me, so if you can, please do. If we’re stuck, do some of the above things – bring me water or food, find me a quiet space, let me be on my phone by myself.
  8. Remember that an attack is more than just the attack. I might be irritable, jumpy, or edgy for hours or even days before, and I might not be sleeping well. If that happens, gently suggest a walk or something I can do for self-care. And remember that after I’m going to be exhausted, again for hours or maybe days. (This just happened to me a few days ago and the whole thing, from the onset of feeling off and irritated to when I finally started feeling like myself again took around 48 hours.)
  9. Talk to me about it. Long after the attack is over – definitely a couple of days, at least – talk to me about it. What did you do that was helpful? How can we improve? Do we need a code phrase for when we’re in public? What private signals can we develop? Which things usually work best and therefore should be the things you try first?
  10. Remember that the brain is a bonkers place. Sometimes you’re going to do everything on this list and nothing will help. Sometimes I’m going to be super resistant to your help and there will be nothing you can do about it. Sometimes you’ll do one or two things on this list and I’ll be much better. Sometimes I won’t need you to help, sometimes I’ll need it desperately. It’s hard to know, and all we can do is try.
  11. Remember that I love you and I am grateful for you beyond measure.


6 thoughts on “What to do with me when I’m anxious: a guide for partners and loved ones

  1. I love this post. It’s so important to be able to articulate what you need. My favorite idea is the reminder that “this is not your new normal. You’ve done this before. Just let it happen.” I always struggle with remembering this!


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