Time to Change research has revealed that calls about anxiety or panic attacks currently account for around one in six of all calls that the mental health charity Mind receives.
In fact, one in 20 of us experience an anxiety disorder. And Time to Change research also recently found that while a quarter of 18 to 34-year-olds feel that showing their emotions is a sign of weakness, 20% of them have cried in the past week because of anxiety.
We spoke to 33-year-old Becky Davis, a police officer from Dawlish. As a teenager she suffered from eating disorders which stabilised when she joined the police. When she was pregnant with her first baby at the age of 30, she was depressed for a number of reasons, and was off work sick from five months onwards. Then, she had severe postnatal depression within two weeks of giving birth – she became very depressed, then anxious, and she even thought about suicide. Ever since, she has experienced bouts of anxiety and depression.
While it’s important to remember that each person, and indeed the people around them, deals with their mental health differently, here are Becky’s practical tips for how to support your partner when they’re going through a difficult time because of anxiety.
1. Remember that little things can really help.
— Time to Change (@TimetoChange) May 3, 2016
For example, a cup of tea, the listening ear, sitting next to me while I sit on a sofa and watch Harry Potter. Or just a hug – but then some days that person might not want to be hugged.
2. Ask them how they feel.
Open communication is the key thing. It’s about the other person not trying to make it better by doing that whole silver lining thing, but by trying to be empathetic. You have to put yourself in the shoes of the person who’s not feeling great. And the way to do that is by asking open questions, like how they’re feeling, and what they need in that moment.
3. Do some research.
I think it’s good to know the general patterns and facts and to see that there is a sound basis to say that mental health issues do exist – particularly if you’ve never been through it yourself. But don’t get too carried away with what other people have experienced, or with trying to be helpful but in a kind of false way – by just trying to implement what you have read up without listening to the person’s individual perspective.
For example: people will say “oh, why don’t you have a bath” or “why don’t you have a cup of chamomile tea”. And actually that may work really well for one person – but for someone else it may just feel like the issue is being trivialised.
It’s about holding the person’s hand I suppose. And having oodles of patience.
4. Don’t put pressure on the person to do anything or be better.
Allow them to be unwell without judging them. It’s really different for each person – so it’s about talking to them about what they need and what is going to help them while they’re going through the difficult times.
So for me, because I’m quite an introverted person, I need some time by myself and space, but when I was really poorly I couldn’t actually do anything. I literally just sat in front of TV and watched Harry Potter. So I guess it’s sort of about supporting the person to be able to just sit and do nothing, if that’s what’s going to help.
I think as somebody starts to feel better it’s about supporting them to be able to go out, even if it’s just a walk around the block or whatever.
5. Try not to ask why.
Sometimes there are no reasons why it happens, there isn’t necessarily a particular accident – anxiety and depression can just bite you from nowhere. So it’s understanding there may not necessarily be a reason for it and that they will come out the other side of it. It’s about being patient and waiting for that sort of turning point.
6. The key is to empower the ill person to make better informed choices.
Yes, do the research and become well-informed. But don’t force the advice or suggestions onto the other person … and then make them feel more guilty when they aren’t ready to take the advice.
For example; drinking caffeine and alcohol and eating chocolate are all bad for anxiety. You could cut down or cut out these things altogether themselves to change routine behaviours. An unhelpful way to suggest that your partner reduces these things could be “I’ve read that x y z is bad for anxiety so you should stop them immediately.”
A helpful way could be “I was reading to become more informed about what you’re going through and read that x y z can increase symptoms and x y z can help” and leave it at that, so they can form their own opinion/conclusion.
7. It’s important to not bury your head in the sand.
I think partners need to try really hard not to pretend like the problem doesn’t exist, for example suddenly spending a lot of time on their mobile phones because they’re struggling to manage with what’s happening in the room. They get lost in a world that doesn’t exist on their phones, which is unhelpful for them and their well-being – but it may also send out a really bad message to their partner.
8. Support the person in doing some exercise.
An unhelpful way to put it would be “try and go for a walk” or “why don’t you go for a walk?” A helpful way: “I’m going to take a walk, do you fancy coming?” If they say no leave it at that and try again the next day.
On a walk it might also be helpful to point to mindful things to help the person focus on the moment, such as the birds and the clouds.
9. Look after your own well-being.
We feel better when we pause to let our mind rest. #Headspace
— Headspace (@Headspace) May 13, 2016
This is really important. You can use help and support from elsewhere, like other family members/friends.
And sometimes me and my partner do the app Headspace together. It’s just 10 minutes of mindfulness that we do together. It’s so good for you – it helps you just clear your minds and clear all that junk out.
10. Support sleep in some way.
A lack of sleep is a contributing factor so if partners can support sleep, maybe with some early nights or lie-ins, and remove the guilt associated with that, then that is helpful.
11. Practise mindfulness together.
Mindfulness for both parties can really help. It’s really good for anxiety when I’ve had perhaps an hour of negative thinking – it’s about kind of just grounding yourself and bringing yourself back into that moment. You’re not thinking about what’s happened in the past and what might happen in the future.
There’s a little tip I’ve picked up from Ruby Wax about concentrating on the feeling of your feet connected to the floor, so when I’m in extreme anxiety I use that. But when I’m just having a general build-up of anxiety, for me it’s a lot about audio sounds. So if there’s birds nearby, I like listening to the birds.
A lot of people I know find looking at the clouds really helpful and you can do things like mindful eating and colouring for adults. And all that’s helpful for a partner as well – instead of getting lost in their mobile phone, it’s better to do something more mindful that keeps them present with their partner.
To find out more about how you can be there for someone close to you visit Time to Change.