I recently came across a survey that was conducted in 2004 by the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA) that assessed the impact generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) has on relationships. Not surprisingly, the disorder has the biggest impact on romantic partnerships, followed by friendships, then work relationships.

Some of the findings were pretty eye-opening, even for me, a clinician who sees clients with panic and anxiety disorders on a daily basis:

  • GAD sufferers are significantly less likely to consider themselves in a “healthy and supportive” relationship with their spouse/significant other (49 percent) compared to those without the condition (76 percent).
  • GAD sufferers are two times more likely to experience at least one relationship problem (i.e., get into arguments on a regular basis, and avoid going places, social activities, being intimate, and communicating) with their spouse/significant other than non-sufferers.
  • Seven out of 10 GAD respondents indicate that the disorder has a negative effect on their relationship with their spouse/significant other, noting problems with communication, sexual intimacy, and frequent arguments.
  • GAD sufferers are nearly three times more likely to avoid being intimate with their romantic partners than non-sufferers (35 percent vs. 13 percent).
  • Seventy-five percent of GAD sufferers feel their disorder impairs their ability to perform normal activities with their spouse/significant other, with 25 percent of this group feeling it interferes most of the time.
  • Two-thirds of GAD sufferers feel their relationship with their spouse/significant other would improve if they were not suffering from the disorder.

Any of the above sound familiar to you?

I think what struck me most about the above findings is the underlying guilt and shame that people with anxiety and panic disorders must feel about the way their illness affects their partners and the relationship as a whole. I often find that clients with anxiety fuel their own problem by blaming themselves for not being able to get past the fear and panic, which adds more stress, and puts them in a never-ending cycle.

Having read the above statistics, what can you, as the supportive partner, do to help your partner with anxiety?

  • Share the findings above with your partner and ask their feelings about the results. If a survey-taker were to call your partner tonight and ask the same questions, how would they respond? Then follow up by asking what you can do to make things easier on your partner.
  • Consider how you react when your partner is experiencing anxiety. Are you calm and patient, or do you find yourself getting exacerbated and frustrated? Some days you might be better able to tolerate the anxiety than others. That’s okay–the key is to figure out what makes the anxiety more tolerable for you, and communicate with your partner about how best to help.
  • Self-care is very important. Dealing with anxiety and panic is tiring, even if you are not the one experiencing it. Constantly having to assess whether your partner is comfortable and functioning takes a lot of energy. The basics of adequate sleep, good nutrition, exercise, and pleasurable activities–both with and without your partner–will help you ride the waves of anxiety and panic with your partner (and actually, those suggestions will work for your partner as well!)
  • If your partner is not in treatment, encourage them to go, and consider getting some counseling yourself. According to the survey, ninety-three percent of GAD sufferers who received treatment reported improvement in their quality of life, with 22 percent indicating that they noticed a “dramatic” improvement after receiving treatment. That seems like pretty compelling evidence to me.