Building Your Relationship Anxiety Tool Kit
My boyfriend is diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. After two years of dating, I still sometimes struggle to find ways to help him with his fears related to our relationship, about unintended pregnancy, me leaving him or that I’m mad at him if I’m not responding quickly enough. He often worries that he’s doing something “wrong.”
For a long time, I didn’t have specific tools to help me understand his anxiety. But we relied on communication to find our groove. And I began to recognize that I have my own anxieties as well.
It’s important to have an ongoing conversation with your partner about the different ways that you can help each other feel loved and supported.
Anyone can experience anxiety in a relationship, about anything from miscommunications to sexual experiences. It’s more common than you might think. That’s why I found it so weird that people don’t talk more about what to do if you or a partner has relationship anxiety. In this article, I’ll let you in on some tips and tools that I—and other teens across the country—have picked up.
A Common Experience
Reaching out to teens for this article helped me realize that I wasn’t alone. “In my first relationship, I was with someone who was nervous about physical affection,” says Dean, 18, of Holly Springs, NC. “I incorrectly related it to them not being attracted to me. Most of the triggers were related to us not talking about [it], so that wasn’t super helpful.” It’s so easy to misinterpret things if you’re not talking openly with your partner.
Others also experience anxiety related to being physically intimate. “As we were saying goodbye, I knew he wanted to kiss me, but I was still nervous,” says Meredith, 17, of Dorset, VT. “I really liked him, and I wanted to spend more time with him, but I just didn’t know if I was good at kissing, so I started to hyperventilate…we walked around the block together. He held my hand, knowing that I feel better knowing he’s by my side.”
Sometimes teens put pressure on themselves to be sexually experienced. “I feel like I must be good in bed or I will let them down,” says Tiko, 19, of New York City.
And sometimes, anxiety comes down to miscommunication. “Before our first date, I felt like he didn’t want to be with me because he was missing for hours,” says Vivi, 17, of San Bernardino, CA. “Turns out he had gotten a horrible bee sting that left his neck swollen and he was dealing with it. He reassured me afterwards, and now we laugh about it months later.”
My Relationship Anxiety Tool Kit
As you can see, there is a range of reasons teens may feel anxious. And full disclosure: I have by no means found a cure for relationship anxiety. My boyfriend and I still get anxious sometimes, and that’s OK! But below are some ways we’ve helped each other through it.
Tool #1: Reassurance
After a sexual encounter, a disagreement or just a busy day when I was unresponsive, my boyfriend has asked, “Is everything OK?” In the beginning of our relationship, I didn’t know how to respond. In an annoyed or confused tone, I would ask, “Why would you think something’s wrong?” Unfortunately, this only seemed to confirm the worries in his mind.
“My partner has anxiety,” says Zellepa, 15, of Racine, WI. “The way I help is talk to him and reassure him.” Reassurance can help when people are having anxiety. Now, when my partner asks for reassurance, I say, “Yes, everything’s OK.” in a loving tone. Or, if I was occupied for a long time, I explain why I was busy or that my phone was on “Do not disturb.”
“Lack of communication from a partner is often a trigger for me,” says Victoria, 18, of Robbinsville, NJ. “I overthink about what they could be doing instead of texting me and I get worried. We combat this by communicating more and giving each other reassurance like, ‘Hey I’ll be MIA, because I have a lot of work to do.’” This is a great way to communicate proactively.
Anxiety exists on a spectrum. My boyfriend, for instance, deals with it more regularly, so he has therapy and other resources. In general, reassurance and communication are helpful, but your partner might also need extra support from a therapist, family or other sources. While it’s helpful to reassure your partner, it’s optimal if they can also reassure themselves as needed!
Tool #2: Build a Foundation of Trust
Trust is one of the most important parts of a healthy relationship. Without trust, it can be harder to deal with relationship anxiety.
My boyfriend struggles with this at times. Something he is working on is leaning on our foundation of trust, and when feeling anxious, remembering how comforted he feels outside of that moment of fear.
Trust isn’t built in a day. It takes a lot of open, honest communication, loyalty and effort from both partners.
Tool #3: Don’t Invalidate Their Anxiety
Anxiety can make you believe some things that seem irrational. There have been times when it was hard for me to understand my boyfriend’s anxiety so I dismissed it. But even if what the person is worrying about isn’t actually happening, their emotions are real. If you dismiss the worry when your partner comes to you for help, to them it might feel like you’re dismissing their feelings as a whole.
This might make your partner feel less comfortable coming to you in the future, or give the false impression that there is something wrong with them for having anxiety.
Put on Your Oxygen Mask First
Something I’ve struggled with in my relationship is finding a balance between helping my partner deal with his mental health struggles and dealing with my own. On an airplane they always tell you to put on your own oxygen mask before helping those around you. The same goes for relationships. It’s important to prioritize your well-being before offering support to others.
This means setting boundaries, communicating and taking time for yourself. Some boundaries I’ve set with my boyfriend are limits on being able to stay up with him if he’s having anxiety late at night when I have schoolwork or a test to study for, or even if I’m just dealing with stress and anxiety of my own. I’ll communicate that I’m not in a place to be able to help him right then, and he understands and finds other ways to work through it, like meditation, journaling or help from family.
There are ways to help yourself with relationship anxiety. “I always did a lot of affirmations,” says Dean. Affirmations—positive statements about yourself and the world around you, or how you would like things to be in the future—are a great way of easing anxiety.
Maya, 17, of Princeton, NJ, journals to help with relationship anxiety. This is my favorite tool as well. For instance, I used to worry that my boyfriend only liked me for my body, but journaling helped me realize that this stemmed from times in the past when I felt objectified.
If you can’t figure out the root of your anxiety, try writing about it so you can look at it from a different perspective!
Build Your Own Tool Kit
Every relationship is different, and people experience anxiety in different ways. The tools I’ve found might work for some, but not everyone. It’s important to have an ongoing conversation with your partner about the different ways that you can help each other feel loved and supported.
“Communication is key,” says Victoria. “Reading each other’s minds and assuming is the worst…. It’s important to remember to—even if it’s hard—open up with one another and get vulnerable in talking about your feelings.”
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