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Psychiatry & Psychology--General/Girlfriend's anxiety pushing me to the brink

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My problem regards my girlfriend of just over 1 year. We are in our twenties and have had a dedicated relationship which we both feel shows great promise. I feel that she has a serious anxiety disorder, and I have felt this since shortly after I met her. She takes the smallest problems as enormous setbacks, is constantly under stress, and has a hard time with problem solving. Although we are extremely honest with each other (I think we even share too much), I have never broached this topic, as I don't think she would react well.

She had a difficult upbringing as a child (divorced parents, a mother dealing with anxiety and health problems, etc.), and before I met her was dealing with vertigo, migraines, panic attacks, swallowing problems, back pain, etc. I was very supportive at first, and I understand that her specific health problems are much better than a year ago.

However, the anxiety is getting to me as well, and I have started having problems in my own life. In addition, I have not been treating her as well the past few months. We have short happy periods interspersed with break-ups and angry exchanges. I feel unable to help her, and frequently go into self-preservation mode and try to escape the relationship. Now I feel that I have two conflicting desires: first, to get out of the relationship before it hurts me any more, and second, to help her overcome her problems and make it through as a couple. Is there any way I can help her without causing additional harm (to myself or her)?

Answer
You sound like a decent guy, Jack.

You're between being a friend and an ex-friend. But you are not a psychotherapist and certainly not her therapist. Do not try to help her directly or even focus on her problems.

But you can tell her why you were attracted to her and that you hope she'll always consider you someone she can count on, even in the absence of an ongoing relationship. Then ask if she'd like to meet with you again, for something neutral such as a coffee or a walk.

If she declines, there's little chance that any attempt at suggesting getting help would be well received. If she accepts, you might, toward the end of the meeting, point out that while she seems to have some internal anxiety that she handles well, it must be stressful for her, and there are lots of mental-health professionals who specialize in teaching their clients how to cope with these feelings, and would she like to know how to access one of them.

If she seems receptive, have at the ready the contact information of a couple of clinical psychologists who, through a bit of research on your part, seem suitable. And hope she sees one of them.

Thanks for asking us, and I hope the reply will be of some use.

Alan

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Alan Auerbach

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Taught psychology for 30 years, authored four textbooks. Specialize in introductory and industrial/organizational psychology, but will tackle wider range of areas.

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