Living with Someone Living with Anxiety

What to do if a loved one suffers from GAD.

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The symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) are uncomfortable not just for the person experiencing them, but for the loved one of the afflicted individual as well. If your partner tends to worry a lot, an initial, natural impulse might be to reassure them that “everything will be fine.” But when your partner, because of his or her GAD, has a hard time believing you, you might be inclined to repeat the message to the point of exhaustion or irritation, or to “help” your partner by taking care of whatever it is that is the source of the worry.

Does this cycle sound familiar? If so, it has probably led to stress for you and more strain on your relationship.           

Research studies support the negative impact of anxiety on relationships. A study by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America has found that people with GAD are twice as likely to experience a relationship problem, such as frequent arguments or social avoidance, and three times more likely to avoid intimacy than people without GAD.  However, there is also evidence that a close relationship (such as marriage) can also be the greatest source of social support for someone with GAD.  

How can you help someone you love live with and overcome anxiety?

Learn about the anxiety problem.

Simply put, knowledge is power. Learn as much as you can about anxiety and its symptoms, causes, and treatments. Share this information with your loved one as well. Understanding treatment options including psychotherapy approaches – like cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulnessmedication options, and tools for self-help may be an important first step in promoting hope for change and recovery.

This information will help you to appreciate exactly what your loved one is experiencing when he or she worries, obsesses, or panics and familiarize you with some strategies to help.

Avoid assumptions.

Unless you have also experienced high levels of anxiety, presuming to understand your partner’s experience of worry will not help.

Instead, ask him or her to tell you about (1) the anxiety they experience, (2) what might be needed from you in the moment, and (3) anything that is a particularly un-helpful response on your end. Listen carefully to your partner’s response and plan to revisit this conversation as needed to evaluate how you’re both doing.

Encourage goal setting.

Support your partner in establishing realistic goals for challenging anxiety that are specific and can be approached in discrete, measurable steps. This could involve practicing belly breathing to relax (even when not anxious), using worry time to begin to learn how to control worry, or lessening use of alcohol or drugs to self-medicate when anxious.

Champion successes.

Positive reinforcement of healthy behaviors can take the form of acknowledgment, praise, or appreciation for tolerating difficult feelings and fears without avoidance. Positive reinforcement is known to encourage repetition of a given behavior, and in this case is likely to motivate your loved one to keep working hard to challenge anxiety in measurable ways.

Find the balance between patience and pushing.

While it’s of course important to be patient with your loved one – especially in high anxiety moments – too much acceptance or accommodation of his or her anxiety can lead to a poorer outcome for your partner.  This is because surrendering to anxious requests and creating a short-term peace comes at the cost of more anxiety and reassurance-seeking in the long-term. Conversely, offering fair feedback directed at specific behaviors may actually be more effective than blanket acceptance.

If you’ve already found yourself giving in to anxious requests, it’s never too late to make a change and set some limits. Set limits most effectively by (1) notifying your loved one about your plan and reasons to set some limits, (2) gradually decreasing the amount or type of reassurance you offer, and (3) staying strong if things get a little worse before they get better.  Remember, your partner may have become accustomed to their behavior being met in a certain way, but the shock of receiving a different, less reassuring reaction will wear off in time and pave the way for improvement.

Lastly, in the midst of helping your loved one, don’t forget to help yourself. Managing anxiety is typically more of a marathon than a sprint, so self-care is just as critical (if not more) as taking care of your partner.


Priest JB. Anxiety disorders and the quality of relationships with friends, relatives, and romantic partners. J Clin Psych 2013; 69:78-88.

Zinbarg R, Lee JE, Yoon, L. Dyadic predictors of outcome in cognitive-behavioral program for patients with generalized anxiety disorder in committed relationships: A ‘spoonful of sugar’ and a dose of non-hostile criticism may help. Behav Res Ther 2007; 45:699-713.

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