Lana* always suspected anxiety would play a role in her life. Her brother and mum both struggle with anxiety and it was only a matter of time until hers started to “get louder” in different circumstances.
As a teenager getting ready for her driver’s test, for example, her nerves escalated to the point of physical illness. When her family went through a rocky time as a young adult, she realised she needed to get medical help for her anxiety.
Throughout her 20’s, she has found a combination of medication and counselling to be a huge help as she rode the waves of anxiety and depression. There was no getting rid of these burdens, but she had found tools to help her and a support network of trusted family members and friends to be there when she felt like she couldn’t cope.
Then she met Pete*.
Early in their dating relationship, she felt the understandable nervousness that comes with the territory, and when they started to talk about marriage, she felt peace that this was the right man for her.
“I haven’t felt any anxiety about marrying him,” Lana explains, “but I do feel anxious that I’ll burden him with my anxiety. I know he wants to support me and help me, but I don’t always know what I need from him. He’s also quite extroverted and loves to be social, but those situations make me anxious. I fear that I hold him back.”
Walking through life with anxiety is a path that is more common than you’d think, but it can also be a unique experience for each person. In a marriage where only one spouse lives with anxiety, it can be difficult to navigate this dynamic together. How will the spouse with anxiety communicate what he or she needs? How will the spouse without anxiety understand something they’ve never experienced before?
Before going into the specifics of what a husband and wife can do to support and encourage one another, it’s important to understand anxiety itself.
What does anxiety look like?
Before anything else, it is essential to differentiate between reasonable situational anxiety and when anxiety becomes a chronic struggle. Everyone worries from time to time, and everyone is faced with situations in life that cause stress.
If you lose your job, it makes sense to become anxious. If you get injured, it’s reasonable to feel stressed. Anxiety becomes an issue when those worries go unchecked and take over, or the situation is disproportionate to the stress felt.
People with a Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), for example, spiral through a series of “what if” questions that become difficult to stop:
What if I sleep through my alarm and I’m late for work? What if being late for work means I’m disciplined by my boss? What if that discipline is the last straw and I get fired? What if we can’t pay our bills? What if we lose everything? 1
Or, as Focus on the Family Canada counsellor Karin Gregory puts it, “Anxiety treats your skull like a velodrome.” You know how bikes go around and around those tracks at increasing speeds? Anxious thoughts behave in much the same way, and it can feel impossible to get off the track and stop.
Similarly, if you get sick, a reasonable reaction may be one of disappointment or frustration. Someone who deals with health anxiety, though, may think a common cold is deathly pneumonia or a headache is due to a brain tumour. 2
Those who deal with these kinds of spiralling thought patterns are more prone to being debilitated by their anxiety, especially if they don’t seek appropriate help from a doctor or counsellor – or both.
The following are different ways people with unchecked GAD behave in everyday life:
- Intolerance of uncertainty
- Excessive reassurance-seeking
- Refusal to delegate
- Avoidance and procrastination
- Distraction and keeping busy 1
- Excessive information-seeking or list-making
It’s also important to realise that not everyone with anxiety is plagued with anxious thoughts. Some people’s anxiety shows itself in physiological reactions such as feeling physically sick, having sleep problems, suffering from headaches and migraines, feeling irritable over little things, dealing with neck and shoulder pain, etc.1
If you or your spouse struggles with anxiety, it’s important to accept it so you can understand it.
“Acceptance does not mean that you ‘agree with’ everything that is happening to you or that you ‘like’ feeling difficult emotions,” Anxiety Canada notes 3. “Acceptance means that you accept that you feel what you feel. You accept what is happening, rather than trying to run away from it, fight it, deny it, or attempting to be someone that you are not.”
Before you can accept it, though, you need to let go of shame.
Letting go of shame
The sad reality is there is often a stigma attached to anxiety – even in Christian communities. Some people might feel as though they’re spiritually weak when they can’t keep their anxiety in check. Others may feel as though they are failing to trust God when they struggle with fear and worry.
While spiritual health is a crucial element of being able to navigate anxious thoughts and feelings, anxiety itself is not a character or sin issue. It’s a health issue.
In sessions with clients, Gregory uses the illustration of diabetes: “You don’t choose to have it, but you can choose to manage it.” Anxiety is no different.
Shame is an unnecessary feeling that can weigh you down and keep you from seeking help.
Brené Brown, noted author and research professor, has spent over 10 years studying shame and vulnerability.
“Shame derives its power from being unspeakable,” she writes in her book Daring Greatly. “That’s why it loves perfectionists – it’s so easy to keep us quiet. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees.”
Shame seeks to isolate us and keep us small.
Put simply, Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
If you are struggling with anxiety, and you feel as though you are wrong, bad, flawed and unworthy of connection to your spouse, you need to find a safe person – whether it’s your spouse, a friend, or better yet a counsellor – to bring that shame into the light and remind yourself you are worthy.
Brown explains that the antidote to shame is empathy.
“Empathy is a strange and powerful thing,” she writes. “There is no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’”
Once you free yourself from shame that keeps you isolated, afraid to share the truth of your experience, and worried about burdening your spouse with anxiety that isn’t going away, you and your spouse can build a tool kit to keep anxiety from becoming debilitating and limiting your life together.
Building your tool kit as a couple
If you or your spouse deals with anxiety, there are a few things you can put into practice to keep the anxious thoughts from spiralling out of control.
Name it. “Simply talking about it can bring it out of your head,” Gregory explains. You can’t deal with something without first acknowledging it’s there. By putting a name to it – or even giving it an actual name – you and your spouse can address it together. Shame wants to keep you from naming your struggles so you are trapped in the pain in silence, but just as Brown has discovered in her shame research, bringing it into the light is what destroys the shame and empowers you to find a path through the darkness.
“If we’re going to find our way out of shame and back to each other,” she writes, “vulnerability is the path and courage is the light.”
Recognise your triggers. Social anxiety is one of Lana’s biggest hurdles. Meeting new people and moving through a room of strangers is a perfect storm for her. By explaining to Pete that this is a major trigger, he can be empathetic to her experience and learn how to be sensitive to those triggers by communicating with her ahead of time, giving her reassurance within the social gathering itself, or even coming up with a signal that lets him know she needs to leave.
Have a strategy for when anxiety hits. For times when it is not possible to prepare ourselves to avoid an anxious situation, it is important to know what we need when anxiety gets the best of us. Maybe it’s a simple touch on your back or a squeeze of the hand. Maybe you need access to fresh air or a certain smell calms you down. Or maybe what you need is silence, darkness and solitude. By communicating with your spouse what is required for you to find calm, they can help you in those difficult moments without feeling as though they’re adding to the problem. Pete, for example, would prefer to be with people when he’s feeling overwhelmed, whereas Lana needs to be alone. When he can see her experiencing overwhelming anxiety, he can give her space without feeling like he’s the problem, and she can communicate to him – either before or after – that it has nothing to do with him. She loves him and appreciates him, but she needs solitude to calm down.
Don’t walk through this alone. Marriage is designed to be a beautiful space of safety, belonging and understanding, but no husband or wife can be everything to their spouse. We are wired for community and sometimes that means inviting friends, family and/or a counsellor into our journey with anxiety. If you have anxiety, it’s important to have your go-to people who can talk you down. It might be your spouse, but it also might be your best friend, a parent or a sibling. By having people other than your spouse you can turn to, you’re not requiring your husband or wife to be your only lifeline. If you don’t deal with anxiety yourself but your spouse does, it’s equally important for you to have a trusted friend or group of friends where you can share your burdens for your spouse and find empathetic support.
What to remember if you live with anxiety
Don’t let shame take over. Everyone deals with anxiety in varying degrees. Having anxiety doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you, it just means you are more sensitive when those anxious thoughts arise. Gregory notes that it may be due to genetics, circumstance, biochemistry or trauma, but telling yourself I’m wrong does not help. You are not wrong or broken. You are worthy of love and you’re more than your anxiety.
Don’t hide it. “Avoiding anxiety only works in the short-term,” Anxiety Canada notes 4. “Facing your anxiety is the only way to effectively manage it in the long-term.”
Normalise it. “Anxiety is uncomfortable and sometimes unpleasant, but it is not dangerous,” Anxiety Canada adds 4. “It is a normal and necessary system of the body.” By accepting it as part of your life, you can take away its power. Some people even find it helpful to give their anxiety a name. For example, saying “George is back” is a simple way to bring it into the light and signal to your spouse your current state. This simple trick also takes away any kind of identity issue; e.g., “I have anxiety” not “I am anxious.” By giving anxiety a name, you are more able to believe that it is not your defining characteristic, it’s a separate entity over which you have agency. It doesn’t control you.
Learn your triggers and limitations, and communicate them with your spouse. Your husband or wife cannot read your mind. In a healthy marriage, they want to help you and walk with you through your struggles, but they don’t know what you need until you explain it to them. By keeping communication lines open and inviting them into how your mind works in calm moments and anxious moments, you are equipping them with the knowledge they need to better help you. No one wants to feel helpless when their spouse is struggling, but we need to help each other understand what we need and when we need it.
Take care of your own mental, spiritual, emotional and physical well-being. Your spouse is not responsible for taking care of you. It is proven that establishing a daily routine, exercising regularly, eating healthy and getting a good night’s sleep helps us manage our anxiety better. “When we don’t take care of ourselves, we can experience a number of problems,” Anxiety Canada explains 5. “These problems can leave us vulnerable to anxiety. Making healthy choices will help you feel better.”
What to remember if your spouse lives with anxiety
You are not your spouse’s therapist. If you are the husband or wife of someone who struggles with anxiety, Gregory wants you to know that you are an encourager, a cheerleader, a voice to remind your spouse of the strategies and tools they need to walk through their most anxious moments, but you are not their therapist. If they don’t have someone already, it would be good for them – and for you – to seek professional help to better navigate this dynamic in your relationship.
Set healthy boundaries. Many people think that setting boundaries is a selfish act, but it is quite the opposite. By knowing our own limitations, we are more capable of taking care of our own mental, spiritual, physical and emotional well-being and encouraging our spouse to do the same.
Know the difference between encouraging and pushing. There may be situations where your husband or wife needs a “gentle nudge” to face their fears, but there may be other situations in which a situation is simply too scary and anxiety-inducing for your spouse. It is crucial for you two to communicate when is helpful for you to push, and when that push becomes damaging. 4
Never shame your spouse for their anxiety. Just because your spouse has a different walk than you does not mean that you are right and they are wrong. Any kind of indication – whether it’s verbal or non-verbal – that you think your spouse is flawed or broken because of their anxiety will cause deep damage to their psyche and to your relationship. As Brown explains, “[W]e can apologise for shaming someone we love, but the truth is that those shaming comments leave marks. And shaming someone we love around vulnerability is the most serious of all security breaches. Even if we apologise, we’ve done serious damage because we’ve demonstrated our willingness to use sacred information as a weapon.” Educating yourself, being open to learning and thanking your spouse for their vulnerability in inviting you into their journey will create the safety required for intimacy to flourish.
If you or your spouse deals with anxiety of any kind, we encourage you to reach out for help.
*Names changed to protect privacy
1 “Generalized Anxiety Disorder,” Anxiety Canada, accessed September 2020.
2 “Health Anxiety,” Anxiety Canada, accessed September 2020.
3 “Kindness: Have a Word with Yourself,” Anxiety Canada, accessed September 2020.
4 “How Friends and Family Can Help,” Anxiety Canada, accessed September 2020.
5 “Healthy Living,” Anxiety Canada, accessed September 2020.