How to talk to your partner about your anxiety or PTSD

There’s no doubt that having a supportive partner can be incredibly helpful when it comes to healing from anxiety and PTSD.

It can be hard to open up the lines of communication about what you might need from your loved one when you’re struggling with your symptoms. Often our partners have absolutely no idea what to do or how to help. For better or for worse, it’s up to us to talk to them about what we need.

What I recommend is to set aside some uninterrupted time for you to speak to your partner privately. Do your best to pick a time where you’ll not have to rush through this and if you have kids, make sure they’re occupied with something.

Now, let’s talk about what to do:

1. First of all, you want to describe to your partner the potential triggers or stressful situations that tend to affect you strongly. For example, you might say something like:

“You might have noticed that I get really uptight when we…” or

“Have you noticed that I always cancel before we go to…”

Then describe what types of situations you tend to have issues with and give them a chance to talk about what they’ve noticed.

2. After explaining about the situations that are challenging to you, next you want to explain how you struggle and what happens to you emotionally, mentally, and physically. It might go something like this:

“When we go to a concert, I feel extremely anxious and sometimes get really irritable. My thoughts start to race and I have the urge to leave the room. My heart pounds and I get really sweaty.”

3. After this, you want to talk to them about what your coping strategies are. Here’s an example:

“I’ve been working on meditating in the mornings, which has really helped take the edge off of my anxiety recently. I’ve been going to therapy to learn about how to deal with my triggers and sit with my emotions. My therapist has been teaching me how to face the stressful situations that I’ve been avoiding for months.”

If you haven’t been doing much, you can be honest about this and let them know why (perhaps that you’re feeling helpless or overwhelmed). If you need support in order to attend therapy or get more time to work on the symptoms, you can talk to them about this.

4. Now you want to open up the conversation with them about what would be helpful when you’re struggling in the moment. Sometimes what they’re already doing is exactly what you need, but often, there are some changes that might be more beneficial to you.

For instance, many spouses go immediately into “fix-it” mode in order to try to help their struggling husband or wife. If you begin speaking to them about what you’re struggling with, they might try to problem-solve for you. If this is helpful for you, great! But if it’s not helpful, now is the time to describe to them what might be a better approach.

Here, it’s important to distinguish between venting and asking for help. Venting is where you’re just wanting to talk for a period of time about something that’s bothering you, with no expectation of the issue being resolved. Asking for help is just that- requesting advice about what would be the best course of action. Often where couples run into trouble is when one spouse is venting and the other feels that they’re asking for help.

So if you want the opportunity to talk to your spouse about your symptoms in a “venting” sort of way, make this a part of the conversation. Make sure they understand what you mean by venting long in advance and then when you need to talk, say something like,

“I’m going to tell you about how I feel right now, but I’m just looking to vent for a couple of minutes.”

I also want to add here that you don’t want to go overboard on the venting to your partner. It can be very tiring and difficult to be on the receiving end of venting on a regular basis. If you’re venting for more than 30 minutes every day, it’s a good idea to seek professional help. Another option is to limit yourself to a certain amount of time for venting on a daily basis and then engage in some self-care activities to deal with the stressors beyond that.

It can be difficult for your partner if he/she tends to be the “fix it” type and you’re often looking to just vent. If your spouse feels that they have some great advice that might be helpful, they might say:

“I have something that I feel might help. Do you want to hear it?”

This gives you the opportunity to accept the advice or indicate that you’re just not looking for help on this topic right now.

Another issue might be that when you’re feeling anxious or triggered, you might try to back out of doing certain activities with your partner at the last minute. Long-term, this isn’t particularly helpful, but it’s hard to make good choices when you get anxious. You might set a plan with your partner about how they can react when this happens. For example, they might say:

“Why don’t we try going for an hour and if you still want to leave at that point, we’ll go?” or

“Remember you told me to try to encourage you to face your fears? I’m here to support you through it, so why don’t we try to go?”

Give some thought to all of the tricky situations that are likely to come up for you and your partner and decide on a plan for how they can support you through them.

If you’re both OK with this, another option is to have your partner attend one of your therapy sessions and have your psychologist help make a plan for how to optimally support you when you’re feeling upset.

5. Make sure you check in with your partner about how they feel about this discussion.

They might have been quite unaware of your symptoms and this might be hitting them like a ton of bricks. In most cases, partners are pretty aware of the problems but don’t know the best way to support their loved ones, so this should help them feel empowered with helpful strategies.

6. Agree to talk about this again so you can make sure you’re continuing to be on the same page. It’s unlikely that one discussion is going to be enough, so make sure the lines of communication are open long-term. You might want to make a plan for when to have another sit-down discussion about how things are going.

Here’s to improving your relationship and helping your partner support you in the best way possible!

PS: Feel free to share this with your friends!

PPS: If you think you need to speak to one of our psychologists, don’t hesitate to reach out to us here.

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