Even without the added uncertainty and stress that this year has brought, anxiety is extremely common in later life. Research from Age UK found that nearly half of adults over the age of 55 say they have suffered from depression and anxiety and that these feelings have worsened as they got older. With Christmas just around the corner and uncertainty over seeing close family members, anxiety levels are expected to worsen among this age group.
According to Mind, one in ten people feel unable to cope at Christmas, rising to a third of people with an existing mental health problem. Even if they are in a long-term loving relationship, those with anxiety can feel isolated in their emotions and may feel as though they are becoming a ‘burden’ to others with their worries, particularly over a period like Christmas which is supposed to be filled with joy.
Dr Jonathan Pointer, Chartered Clinical Psychologist at TherapySanctuary.com reveals how best to support a loved one if you suspect they’re suffering and how small changes can make a big difference to your partner’s anxiety.
How to get your partner to comfortably open up
Age UK found that one in four older people felt it was more difficult for them to discuss mental health issues compared to younger people. Anxiety is experienced in many different forms and its impacts vary. You might feel powerless and unsure how you can help your loved one. Dr Jonathan Pointer advises that by approaching your partner with the following steps, you can help facilitate their recovery and make significant improvements to their mental state:
Create a safe environment
If you sense that someone may need support, or that person has indicated that they are wanting to begin the process themselves, then you need to look for or create a safe environment, where they will not be overheard or interrupted. As well as this, give them the time and space they need. This is their process of opening up so you need to take this disclosure at their pace to avoid your partner retreating inwards.
Go slow and don’t pressurise
If someone opens up to you about their mental health issues, then it is important to recognise and acknowledge that it has probably taken bravery on their part to do so, as they have taken what feels to them like a risk.
The individual’s process of opening up may take place over stages of more than one conversation. The more these conversations take place, the more comfortable your partner may become in having them again. People will often give subtle signals when they do want to broach the conversation again, so going slow at the beginning can pave the way for faster progress further down the line.
Let them lead the conversation
Men in particular often worry about “giving up control”, and therefore it is important to keep the focus of control with the person who is opening up. Acknowledge what they are saying to you by reflecting back to them your understanding of what they are saying.
Additionally, help them name and acknowledge their feelings and beliefs. Unhelpful beliefs can create barriers that prevent a person opening up about their mental health issues, as well as perpetuate their distress. For example, the toxic belief that men are only permitted to show their distress through anger and frustration, rather than expressing what is driving these feelings (such as anxiety), means that some men would rather open up about experiencing anger which may not be perceived as relating to mental health issues.
Listen without judgement
The issue of shame is often a large barrier to men and particularly older men, because of ingrained beliefs regarding taboos surrounding masculinity, mental health issues, and seeking support. The stereotype that ‘men don’t cry’ is not only false but toxic and dangerous when it comes to making progress towards better mental health in men. As well as being a source of non-judgemental support for the person you are helping, encourage them to accept themselves too. Our own experiences of shame can be softened by developing an attitude of non-judgement and compassion towards ourselves.
Do a little research and suggest where to seek help
If appropriate, when the person is ready, you may wish to suggest self-help books that are recommended by mental health professionals. You could also signpost them toward therapy services, but avoid setting up the appointment for them so that they maintain a level of agency over their own treatment and recovery.
5 important lifestyle changes that can help your partner
Often your partner may have been going through the motions of the same lifestyle for a long time, and this restricts them from shifting their perspective and opening up with regards to how they’re feeling. Dr Jonathan Pointer recommends putting the below into effect to start taking small steps towards tackling anxiety:
Connect with old friends
Having good relationships helps to build self-worth and can provide better emotional support. While it’s difficult to arrange days out or meals with friends in current circumstances, making the most of technology to touch base with someone you’ve not spoken to in some time can feel really worthwhile and leave you with a greater feeling of belonging.
Stay physically active
A short walk every day can cause chemical changes in the brain that lift your mood. Setting goals and achieving them helps to raise your self-esteem. For example, the NHS Couch to 5k programme involves achievable goals to help you feel fitter and healthier.
Cut out unhealthy habits
Research shows that higher levels of wellbeing are reported by individuals who eat more fruit and vegetables. Try replacing a couple of your usual meals throughout the week with some healthier recipes instead. As well as this, excessive alcohol and cigarette smoking can be severely detrimental to your mental health.The Quitting Smoking for Mental Health study of over 1000 individuals in the UK found that cigarettes directly impact mental as well as physical health. Participants experienced a positive impact on their mental health after a 4-week period of smoking cessation (52.2%), compared to during the initial 4 weeks of smoking cessation (39.1%), which is an increase of 13%.
Learn new skills
Focusing your mind on something engaging such as cooking, a DIY project, painting or a new sport boosts self-confidence and helps you to build a sense of purpose. Is there a hobby that your partner has always wanted to try but has never got round to it? If so, encourage them to take an intentional step towards learning that skill.
Pay attention to the present
Practising mindfulness can help you to more richly appreciate the small aspects of daily life and to notice your thought patterns as they happen, which has a real impact on your overall mental wellbeing. Even 60 seconds of mindful practice a day can make a difference to your outlook on life and your relationship with your own mind.
What charities can help with anxiety?