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"You just don't see it coming, and yet when anxiety comes, it really comes, and everything changes."

You meet, fall in love and this develops into a long-term relationship … and the last thing you’re expecting is for your partner to develop anxiety. You just don’t see it coming, and yet when anxiety comes, it really comes, and everything changes.

I’ve been on both sides of this: first as the person in the relationship who developed anxiety, and then as the person who was there for my partner, Rhoda, when she developed anxiety. 

Both times were tough. Both times we survived.

 This is the second post in a two-part series from Dr Nic Lucas on living with anxiety in a relationship. You can read the first part, in which he speaks about his own battle with anxiety, here.

By now we’d had children, and at that stage they weren’t great sleepers.

When Rhoda had anxiety

So, about 10 years later, the roles were reversed. Rhoda developed anxiety for completely different reasons and with completely different symptoms.

By now we’d had children, and at that stage they weren’t great sleepers. We hadn’t had more than 3-4 hours of uninterrupted sleep for 6 years. One of our kids had also developed epilepsy, and we seemed to be constantly at the doctor—so this was thrown into the mix.

Rhoda was sleep deprived over many years and was deeply worried about our child. All this strain had to show up somewhere in her life, and it started as the physical symptoms of heart palpitations, numbness, headaches, and blurred vision. Because she didn’t feel anxious, we didn’t think anxiety was the cause.

As the symptoms persisted though, she then got worried about her health—really worried. She’d had a couple of friends develop neurological disorders and another had breast cancer. Rhoda was sure she’d also developed a horrible disease and was worried that she’d miss out on seeing the kids grow up.

Because of the physical symptoms, we went to the doctor and a series of medical tests were orders. Biopsies. Blood tests. MRI’s. X-rays. This all took the best part of a year to sort out, and during all this time Rhoda became highly anxious and our conversations were preoccupied with discussions of her health and our kids health and lot of ‘what ifs’.

Again, looking back, I don’t know how she kept it all together. She still had her work and kept up being a great mum. We were both still up all hours of the night with one or other of the kids. On top of that, we had multiple hospital visits with one of the kids who had a total of 6 weeks off school in one term.

For the most part, I handled it all pretty well, even though I was deeply saddened by the situation we were in. At times it felt quite hopeless and I felt powerless. Neither us, nor the doctors, knew what was wrong with Rhoda and we had no idea what was going to happen to our child with epilepsy. It all just seemed so random and unpredictable.

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On one particular day I bottomed out and sat on the lounge in tears with nothing in my head at all. No idea what to do. No idea what to say. Not much hope. And after that little ‘moment’ I just did all I could do, which was to be there for Rhoda and the kids and just deal with whatever happened in the most calm and reassuring way possible.

No idea what to do. No idea what to say. Not much hope.

After a year of doctors and specialists, it turned out that Rhoda’s original physical symptoms weren’t due to any physical problems and that she’d developed these physical symptoms as a result of underlying and unrecognised anxiety — and then she got a dose of conscious anxious about those physical symptoms.

At least I’d been through anxiety before, so I could help Rhoda in just the same way she’d helped me, and I was able to guide her through a range of techniques that are proven to help with anxiety.

From my perspective, it is tough it is to be with someone you love and watch them go through something like this. You just wish it were over and that everything was back to ‘normal’.

Where’s that magic wand when you need it?

The great news is that like me, Rhoda recovered from anxiety, and her physical symptoms, when she knew what it was and got the right help. Overcoming anxiety is one of the most powerful lessons you can learn in life, and supporting your partner as they go through it can also be one of the most rewarding.

Anxiety happened to us, and I don’t regret a thing. We joined the ranks of hundreds of thousands of Australian’s who also have anxiety and we made it through. All things considered, I think we both did pretty good as ‘partners of people with anxiety’.

While everyone’s situation is unique, if you’re in a relationship with someone who has anxiety, I’d still make a general recommendation to find out about what anxiety disorder is, not so that you can ‘fix’ your partner, but so that you can empathise with them and be there for them to helm them overcome it.

And just like getting angry at someone who is angry will most likely backfire, getting stressed at someone who is anxious is also likely to backfire. So, as the partner of someone with anxiety, it’s really important that you take care of your own mental health as well. Not only will you benefit, but so will they.

Dr Nicholas Lucas
BSc, GradDipClinEpid, MHSc, MPainMed, PhD

Nic has been involved in healthcare, education, and medical research since 1994. He has a BSc in Clinical Science and Master of Health Science from Victoria University, a Graduate Diploma of Clinical Epidemiology and Master of Pain Medicine from the University of Newcastle, and a Doctorate from the Faculty of Medicine, University of Sydney.

Through his consulting and coaching practice, Nic helps people apply insights about the brain and behaviour to their life and business, with a particular focus on digital publishing and online education.

He lives in Sydney, Australia, with his wife, Rhoda, and their two children, Harley and Lara.

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