Thanks so much for re-submitting your question.
I didn’t expect to be laid off, and I had never experienced panic attacks before, so there’s no way I could have warned Ashley or prepared her for what would happen. But she handled it wonderfully.
I don’t know what a professional counselor would recommend to help a spouse with anxiety, but I can tell you what Ashley did that helped me.
Let the feelings happen, but don’t add to them.
For me, a panic attack is just a physical over-reaction. My mind knows that whatever is stressing me out is actually manageable, but my body reacts as though that thing is going to ruin my life. I lose my breath, I break out in a cold sweat, I feel sick to my stomach, my head feels dizzy — and there’s nothing I can do but to wait for the feeling to pass.
And Ashley just quietly waits through it with me. If anything, she tells me that everything will be OK, which reminds me that what I’m experiencing doesn’t reflect reality and that the feeling will go away if I just wait.
Be near, but don’t touch.
No matter how scary the situation that triggers a panic attack might be, the experience of a panic attack is much worse. It feels like dying, so going through it alone is a drag.
At the same time, it’s an over-stimulation. So any additional stimulus — like noise or touch — makes it worse.
Ashley’s great about turning off any music or other noise when I have a panic attack. And if she naturally reaches out with a comforting touch, she isn’t offended that I ask her to stop. She just sits near me quietly, and while that may seem like nothing, it helps to have her there.
Listen, but don’t take anything said too seriously.
It is impossible for me to think clearly when I’m having a panic attack. It fogs my mind, makes me focus on the wrong things and leads me to crazy conclusions. In the midst of it, I’ve said unfair things about others — like accusing my former employers of being sociopaths. And I’ve felt compelled to make some drastic decisions — like dropping out of classes.
Ashley seems to know that whatever I say during a panic attack comes more from the attack than it does from me. Saying it helps me, because it releases some of the tension. But it’s not actually what I think, so it doesn’t need to be addressed, either in the moment or later.
The exception is if I say unfair things about myself during an attack — like that I deserve to feel the way I do. Even though that’s the attack talking, Ashley seems to know that it’s a feeling that could really linger afterward, so she stops it by correcting me when it’s said.
I hope she would also correct me if I ever said anything unfair to her during a panic attack, but thankfully, that has never happened.
Ask questions, but don’t ask for decisions.
Building on the previous point, if I’m too quiet during a panic attack, Ashley asks me questions. It’s really easy for my thoughts to get into a negative loop, only adding momentum to what I’m feeling. So by asking me questions, Ashley gives me a opportunity to let those thoughts out in a safe way. Sometimes, just expressing them is all my mind needs to recognize them as irrational.
At the same time, questions that require a decision only add to the stress I’m feeling, because I know I can’t trust my mind in a panic fog. Instead of asking, “Do you want to go for a walk?” it’s much more helpful for Ashley to just say, “Let’s go for a walk.” If I’m not up for it, I can tell her. But being asked to decide for us whether we should walk is more than I can handle in that moment.
Encourage healthy life balance, but be patient with irrational behavior.
What happens in between panic attacks is as important as what happens during them. The more stressed and negative I let myself become, the more likely another panic attack is to happen. So Ashley encourages me to eat right, get exercise and rest well for my physical health. She also encourages me to journal, get outdoors and talk to a counselor for my mental health. And it makes a difference.
She’s also patient when my anxiety makes me do goofy things — like triple-checking that everything in the apartment is turned off and the door is locked before we go somewhere. It’s probably annoying, but she lets me do it, because I’ll just be distracted by it if I don’t.
Keep this season in perspective.
The most helpful thing Ashley did was to be the rational thinker for us when I wasn’t able to be. I don’t think she ever doubted that God would provide for us and we would be OK. Her main concern seemed to be for how my stress was affecting my physical and emotional health. And that counter-perspective took away some of the fuel for my panic attacks.
She also never let my anxiety become a part of my identity. She didn’t see me as “an anxious guy,” but as a person temporarily experiencing anxiety. And that’s an important distinction, because it keeps the anxiety separate and manageable.
Things will get better. At one point, I was having panic attacks every day, and I was really freaked out by them. Now, they’re several months apart, and I generally know how to handle them when they happen. But Ashley was a big help in getting to that point, and I’m incredibly thankful to have her in my life.
Like I said, a professional counselor could give you better advice. But, looking back, these were things that helped us. I hope they’re helpful to you as well. Thanks for asking!
Peace, love and Jesus,