I’ve had panic attacks since I was 16 years old, so when I met my first husband at age 19 this was already a part of my life and continued on as we dated, got engaged, and eventually married. During this I never really learned how to cope with my panic attacks in an effective way and it was after our actual wedding that I had what I would call a very difficult break down that took me a little over a year to recuperate from. During that year I didn’t know what to do with myself, much less what my husband needed to do to support me. That’s why years later, as I am now in a much healthier mental space, I want to share my experience with other couples who are coping with the same problems. Here I want to share some approaches and perspectives that may help partners better support a partner dealing with panic attacks and anxiety.
During this one year period of time after my breakdown, I felt incredibly fortunate to have a very supportive and dedicated family and group of friends. Yet of course, the biggest burden was on my husband, especially because we were very young.
I needed time and space and this was very challenging to get as we were newly married and now living together. My partner needed love, attention, romance, and communication, and I was instead withdrawn and in need of solitude.
Although I was still there physically, I can now see that my partner felt as though he had lost his wife. The dynamic which we once had was gone. He was suddenly without his companion, the one he laughed with, planned trips with, and had long conversations with. There was no more going out to dance, watching movies, having sex, or goofing around; I was paralyzed and because of this, I would say that my partner lost as much as I did.
During this time, I began taking some very strong medications that essentially made me into a vegetable. I felt numb, and found it difficult to think about anything, let alone have a fruitful conversation. My husband would come home from work and ask me how my day was and the best I could do was answer with: fine, yes, no, maybe… This dynamic between us and this journey within myself lasted for almost a year and I know that during that time, my husband was at a complete loss for what to do.
I can’t speak on behalf of him, though I can understand that he didn’t see the woman he fell in love with anymore. I know what it feels like to look at your life and feel like things will never get better, that they’ll never change, so I understand why he finally made the decision to leave the marriage. We all have our limits and whether I agreed with him or not, he hit his.
At the end of the day, as someone who suffered from mental health challenges, our partners are the ones who suffer the most in these situations, because they’re the ones who spend the most time trying to take care of us. It’s like having someone but not having them at the same time. It’s wanting to share things and not being able to, it’s having to deal with odd situations all the time, like going to a restaurant and having to leave because the smell of the food makes me sick. It’s not being able to travel, it’s wanting to have sex and noticing the odor of medicine being excreted from my body. It’s constantly watching and seeing but never being seen.
After we divorced, I missed having a partner and someone to love, but at the same time I was afraid of putting another person in that position again. I didn’t know if I could bare to see that disappointed look on someone’s face over and over again. I felt wracked with guilt every time I had to say no, every time I couldn’t do something that I used to enjoy doing with my partner.
So, if I can give some advice to those whose partners are currently dealing with mental health challenges, the first thing I would recommend is trying not to pressure your partner. During these times, for your partner, just being able to breath feels like a miracle. To know that you’ll be there by their side is more than enough. Your smile is enough, your presence is enough, and for them not to feel like they have to do anything or be anything to still be loved is all they need. Not having the pressure that they need to please you and not disappoint you is the best gift you could give them during these times.
Of course I know that’s much more difficult than it sounds; there’s no manual that guides us on how to act when our partners are managing these problems, yet there’s also no guilt on either side.
Each person is different and each panic attack is different, yet there are some things that you can do to help your loved one through these times.
A lot of the fear and frustration that you feel watching your partner turn into someone you don’t recognize can come from not understanding what’s happening. That being said, trying to ask a bunch of questions to your partner may result in even more frustration as oftentimes your partner will not be quite sure what’s happening to them either. So in the moment, acknowledge that they feel scared or threatened by something and continue to reassure them that they are safe and that their body will soon find its balance again.
During other times you can rely on outside sources, seek out advice from forums and blogs, and most importantly, accept that you may not always get the answer you want. Sometimes there is no quick fix or solution that can suddenly make all of your partner’s problems go away. Simply keep the lines of communication open with your partner without shaming them, blaming them or shutting them down.
When your partner feels a panic attack coming on, help them find a comfortable position, whether it’s seated, lying down, or walking. Ask them if they feel hot or cold, because helping to regulate their temperature can be very helpful in reducing the intensity of the attack. Another consideration to be aware of is the lighting. It may sound odd though sometimes too much or fluorescent lighting can also increase the intensity of the panic attack.
In the middle of a panic attack, it can feel like the world is closing in on you, or like you’ll suffocate or drown, so it’s important to help your loved one focus on something outside of themselves. Physical objects or views are easier as it is outside of their own bodies and can provide a kind of grounding feeling. If you’re in a public place, they can try focusing on the feeling of their feet on the ground, or the sensation of gripping the chair they’re sitting in. If you’re in a more controlled environment like your house or car, you can do breathing exercises together.
Again my intention is to help partners supporting their loved ones through panic attacks. I know that every story is different, every marriage is different and my story is not a ‘one size fits all’ manual, but maybe you can find some comfort in knowing you’re not alone. I think it’s important to support others who are dealing with the same issues so now it’s your turn to share your advice and wisdom.
Have you been in a similar situation? How was it for you? Did you do some of the things I suggested or do you have your own way of dealing with this to share with us? Thank you!