Please help me help my boyfriend with his social anxiety.
October 11, 2013 11:53 AM   Subscribe

My boyfriend and I, both in our mid twenties, have been together for two years and living together for one. We have a very affectionate and loving relationship and are generally very happy together. We've had one major recurrent issue, however, and that is the difficulties that stem from his extreme social anxiety and insecurity.

It's so sad and frustrating. In the right situations, with the right people, and the majority of the time, he's a carefree, adventurous, silly and fun person to be around. But other times, in certain social situations (and even more disturbing, when it's just him and me out on our own) certain things will trigger him to become extremely anxious and tense. I've learned to immediately tell when he's freaking out on the inside, and I try hard to be supportive and understanding and a comforting presence to him, but it's HARD when it just keeps on happening and totally messes up the vibe of situations that would otherwise be very positive and happy. I sometimes experience a (much less crushing) variety of social anxiety, so I kinda get it, but I'm also a very positive person and I can understand from an outside perspective when I start feeling needlessly anxious and can control it. He doesn't seem to be able to really get a handle on that. He's so sensitive, and he just lets stuff GET to him, stuff that I notice as well but don't let bother me. It's affecting our relationship.

For clarification, some examples:

-He and I are taking photos of ourselves at a scenic viewpoint in the mountains. Other people, a family of strangers, settle themselves a respectful distance away from us at the same viewpoint. This proximity to strangers while we're trying to take pictures of ourselves freaks him out, makes him anxious and makes him shut down, totally altering the positive vibe that had been there a moment earlier. This in turn, brings me down and makes me sad.

-We're at a bar with mutual friends. I'm on the dance floor with them, enjoying myself, he's lurking in the back glaring around and inwardly freaking out cause he thinks guys are going to touch me/dance up on me/hit on me/try and kidnap me/etc. I try to understand, but this attitude (which, for me, is totally unwarranted, to be worrying so much on a night out) brings me down. Why can't he just relax and enjoy himself instead of worrying so much about EVERYTHING?

There are countless, countless other examples. We've talked about this many times. He understands it's affecting our relationship and that it's difficult for me to live with. The catch is that it really really cripples him, to the point that he hasn't really addressed it. He understands he has to do something to help himself...but what?

He doesn't have health insurance, so while I think (and have told him) that he would really benefit from therapy, that's not really an option right now. I've showed him online forums and literature about living with and controlling social anxiety. The practices he said have helped him in the past (yoga, meditation, reading poetry, writing, hiking) I constantly encourage him to do...and he does, but it seems like his anxiety is often preventing him from even starting those things. I've asked him to look into accounts of people who have found ways to help themselves with the same issues, to find books on the topic. We live in a state with medical marijuana--I've offered to research strains of marijuana that are prescribed for anxiety.

All of these things he seems open to, but his very anxiety seems to prevent him from truly investigating different ways to help himself. And, you know, I don't really know what I'm talking about--I'm not a psychologist--I'm just trying to do everything I can to help him. It's so frustrating and saddening, he knows he has to do something but hasn't really begun. I don't know what to do. I love him, but this issue really puts a damper on things for me. One of my biggest goals in life is to travel, and he wants to travel too, but at this point I feel like certain aspects of traveling in a foreign country would make him so anxious...which is so depressing for me.

Does anyone have any suggestions on anything he and/or I could do to help him? For those who know more about psychology than I do, if this information helps at all, on the Myers Briggs scale, he's typed both as an INFP and INFJ. He's very sensitive and introverted and perceptive. (I usually type as an ENFP, sometimes INFP. So I get this. I'm a feeler too. I'm also very perceptive to people and moods. I understand his sensitivity, his anxiety. It's just so CRIPPLING to him.)

He's such a kind, wonderful person with passions and goals. It hurts me to watch him limiting himself so much. Please, any advice or words of wisdom at this point would be great. Thanks a lot.
posted by Emms to Human Relations (17 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I'm an extremely anxious and depressed person, and I have to say that medication has been a blessing. Many SSRIs are helpful, and generic now, so they are not cost-prohibitive. The initial doctor's visit/diagnosis might be expensive, it sounds like he could use a work-up anyway.
posted by juniper at 11:58 AM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

He doesn't have health insurance, so while I think (and have told him) that he would really benefit from therapy, that's not really an option right now.

Has he checked out the insurance exchanges? If he doesn't have it now, he'll need to have it soon anyway or face a fine, right?
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:10 PM on October 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

There are things that he can try. Yes, therapy. Yes, medication works for a lot of people. People will suggest many of these things.

I'd also like to say, though, that if he is carefree the majority of the time, he's doing a really amazing job managing his anxiety already. He has a job and a relationship and friends; he's able to deal with somewhat stressful situations without having panic attacks, and is able to express what's making him anxious. That's a lot!

Your frequent reminders that you think he's not doing well enough are, I would guess, very anxiety provoking. He is probably afraid about losing you if he tries harder and fails. And that is a real risk: some of us are very non-responsive to medication and, even after years of therapy, are lucky if we're doing nearly as well as your boyfriend is. Can you accept him the way he is? If he tried to get "better" and there was no progress after a month (or six months, or a year), would you stay with him? If the answers to these questions is yes, then I'd reassure him, and see if that encourages him to get help on his own. If it's no, then he needs to know that.
posted by munyeca at 12:10 PM on October 11, 2013 [14 favorites]

He doesn't have health insurance...

Is he in a situation where this could this be fixed? That is, if this is because of his job, is looking for a job with health insurance realistic? If he's unemployed or a student, can he sign up for Medicaid-managed care (or the equivalent in your location)? Is the Affordable Care Act going to present him with new options?

Many people (myself included) search for and work jobs that aren't ideal simply for the insurance. I can vouch that the benefits of being able to effectively manage one's health far, far outweigh having to settle a bit for a vocation.
posted by griphus at 12:10 PM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

First: his social anxiety is not your responsibility. If his behavior is preventing you from enjoying group social activities it is 100% okay for you to set a boundary regarding this.

Therapy is not out of the question just because he doesn't have insurance. Some providers will work on a sliding scale or allow you a discount rate if you pay in cash. Yes, it can still be expensive, but it's worth it.

"The Worry Cure" by Robert Leahy is a book that worked wonders for my anxiety and I highly recommend it.

Best wishes.
posted by trunk muffins at 12:16 PM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

This might sound out there, but does he love himself?

I suspect a lot of these issues stem, not necessarily or exclusively from a "chemical imbalance", or an abnormal set of neurophysiological defaults, but from a set of beliefs and attitudes about one's own self.

Does he hate his body, his face, or his personality in any way?

If so, it is probably a worthwhile investment for him to face up to himself and deal with the issue, if it is truly underlying these problems.
posted by spacediver at 12:20 PM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

i think rather than you trying to help him with his anxiety you would be better off dealing with how his anxiety makes you feel down. he is the only one who can fix his anxiety problem and it sounds like he hasn't taken any steps so far to do this even after your prompting. i think he needs your acceptance probably more than anything.

you can't fix him but you can decide what you are willing to tolerate in a relationship and you can work on how his behavior affects you. trying to change another person is almost always an exercise in futility. setting boundaries and conveying your feelings to him, with "i feel statements" rather than "you statements" is a lot more effective. see here for info on communicating effectively with "i statements".
posted by wildflower at 12:27 PM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: -We live in a very vibrant but very small town in a remote area, and there are actually very few jobs that offer benefits such as health insurance. We don't plan on living here forever and will probably move to a place with more opportunity for us in the next year or so. However, a huge source of anxiety for him is he has a BA, but doesn't feel qualified for many jobs that he actually wants to do, or that offer benefits. He does have a job now.

spacediver, I think you are very right--he has very little confidence in himself. I tell him how awesome he is, but that's also something he has to realize for himself, you know?

munyeca, and wildflower, thanks for the perspective. I try and talk about it makes me feel down, but I think you're right in picking up that I could probably give the issue a little more acceptance.

I will definitely look into "The Worry Cure", sliding scale therapy (which I suggested to him once) and whether the new healthcare act opens up anything for him.

Thanks all. Keep them coming.
posted by Emms at 12:34 PM on October 11, 2013

Your two examples are very different. Clamming up when a private moment suddenly has strangers in it, ok. Jealously watching you on the dance floor freaked out that somebody might hit on you, not ok. You are allowed to have fun and be respected enough by your boyfriend that he doesn't think you'll either not be able to handle being hit on or actually take another guy up on his offer.

His anxiety, as others have said, is not your illness to cure. Yes, support his efforts to address it, but don't mother him.

Speak to how it affects you, and realize that you/your needs deserve as much understanding and compassion as he does.
posted by headnsouth at 12:37 PM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

A single visit to a GP for cash shouldn't run more than $125, and a generic SSRI should run $4-20/month. Can you help him come up with the cash for that? My insurance costs more than that; not having any does not mean that getting help is impossible (it's the anxiety saying that).

I am in a dual-anxious relationship, and we kind of have a rule that there is a very short window in which one is allowed to poop on other people's good time, after which one shall remove oneself from the situation as gracefully and thoughtfully as possible with the least amount of inconvenience to other people, because one is a goddamn grownup. And certain things that one knows one cannot deal with - like nightclub creepers or super-loud parties or boats, because ugh boats - means one will stay home or take steps to be able to deal with those things in the future.

You can suffer from difficult, even debilitating anxiety and not be an asshole about it. Yes, sometimes it ambushes you, and that's when you work as a team to get to a better happier place, but there's a layer of personal responsibility that is difficult to manage without help, and sometimes the best initial help is medication so that you can get out of your own way.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:09 PM on October 11, 2013 [10 favorites]

Anyone can prescribe anti-anxiety drugs. Doc-in-the-box at the CVS shouldn't run you too much money and the generics are super-cheap. I take Celexa and I think I pay about $7 per month. It is a GOD-Send!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:15 PM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

Your first example sounds like typical introversion, not social anxiety. First you need to separate the two and understand that introversion is not something that can or needs to be fixed. It would help you to do some reading, google 'caring for / understanding an introvert'. Then work on managing the anxiety.
posted by tenaciousmoon at 1:57 PM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

As tenaciousmoon said, the two examples are different. This sounds like it could overlap into introvert/extrovert relationship friction, as opposed to pure extreme social anxiety and insecurity.

How much of this is situational? Does he often get triggered when he's left alone in a bar or when is space is "invaded?"

Not sure if this is helpful, but in the bar situation, he's thinking he was invited out to a bar that's loud, with a ton of strangers, and then was told, "Hey, so I know you don't dance, but we do, so I'm going to leave you by yourself for an indeterminate amount of time in this loud room full of people you don't know." Anxiety. Grumpiness. I'd probably feel the same way.

I think some of the advice here is that he's wrong and should just adjust. You can certainly take that position, and you may be 100% right, but that's not likely to change how he feels in that situation. It's also not going to fix the problem. A little communication and compromise on your part may help him tremendously. If you're at Bar B, you'll dance to a couple songs and not leave him standing alone for X minutes. Or maybe if your plan is to go dancing, he stays home.

By the same token, is he often triggered when he feels like his space or privacy is "invaded?" Agree that if you're at scenic viewpoint A and said family "invades" your space, you move to have more space, or just take off and find another fun place.

There may be a mix here of him (and you in some cases) avoiding situations he knows tend to trigger him. Even identifying what they are and having an escape plan can be a good thing.

If this isn't something you feel you should have to do, that's 100% valid. If this is something that happens with him constantly and not situationally (and avoidably), then it's OK to find someone more your speed. Sometimes introverts and extroverts just don't mix.
posted by cnc at 2:57 PM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

You guys are both young, so you might not have the perspective right now to understand that the time frame for changing a deep-seated issue like this can be LONG. Like, years, even with treatment, and it may never be cured, exactly, but just more manageable for him. I have no doubt he wishes he didn't have this anxiety, and I bet he wishes he were more motivated and/or had the means right now to try some of these tools. But you sound like you're quickly losing patience, hounding him to try all these things, and I can't tell from your post whether he's asking you for this kind of assistance. If you're not happy enough with things as they are RIGHT NOW to let him work through this at his own pace, then I think you will eventually run out of patience and be ready to break up with him in the next couple of years, which will be the best thing for you to do at that point. (My last ex broke up with me for similar reasons about 7 years ago, and I've been in therapy for the last 6. Still not done yet, although I haven't been willing to add medication, so who knows if that would speed things up for me....)

For now though, maybe back off a bit? He's got lots of helpful ideas at this point, and if he's slow in taking action on them it's not because he's forgotten. (Except for getting health insurance-- it would be really helpful to keep pursuing that.)
posted by Dixon Ticonderoga at 3:16 PM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

(Apologies for the caps; easier than italics on a phone.)
Couples therapy might be a place to talk about, not how HE can fix HIS anxiety and feel better HIMSELF, but how YOU AND HE can address the moments where HIS anxiety flares up and evokes feelings in YOU so that BOTH OF YOU feel better about the interactionand YOUR RELATIONSHIP grows stronger.

It might be a faster route to a solution that leaves you feeling better, both because you're motivated and not overwhelmed about seeking help so the getting of the therapy might occur more quickly, and because in therapy you two can work out interim solutions that allow you to feel better even in the meantime before he gets his anxiety under control.
posted by salvia at 5:04 PM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

You know what? I was a lot like him. What helped was little by little bit by bit exposing myself to positive social interaction. And no, he doesn't have to be like this forever.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 6:36 PM on October 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

It may be that using chemical brainwashes or therapy could help. I find that mindfulness meditation is a way to gently refocus my mind away from the alarm scenarios it so readily creates. There are also cognitive practices like reframing and CBT that get one to essentially rethink the mental premises behind one's perception of a situation.
Over time you figure out the alarms are not really sounding, the asteroid has not yet hit the planet, and nothing is going to happen in the next five minutes that's going utterly change your life in ways too awful to contemplate. It's like PTSD-lite for regular folks. Your perceptions are overactive towards sounding the danger signal and the triggers are too subtle to really notice. Mindfulness can really help plus changing one's mental frameworks and starting to replace those triggers with awareness.
posted by diode at 9:32 PM on October 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

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