Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“My Boyfriend Has Panic Attacks”

Guest columnists and contributors are generously sharing their talents and insights while I’m taking some time to care for my new baby. Today’s letter is answered by freelance writer, Rachel East, AKA ReginaRey.

I’m a 19-year-old college sophomore and I have been dating another sophomore for around three months. He is beyond sweet and caring and treats me amazingly well. Last night he came back from a night of partying and was upset with himself over how drunk he got because we have finals coming up and he was planning to get up early to study for them. He ended up getting so stressed he had what I think is a panic attack. His entire body was seizing uncontrollably and he wasn’t able to talk very well. This lasted on and off for over three hours (and to answer the obvious question: It was not alcohol poisoning. He was not very drunk and in between seizing he could talk completely lucidly and once I realized it was anxiety-related and instructed him in breathing exercise he stopped almost immediately).

He has a history of anxiety related issues: his eyes roll uncontrollably when he is stressed and one time when I asked him a simple question about whether he wanted to watch a movie or talk he started hyperventilating and freaking out. I’m also not new to anxiety issues. In high school I was diagnosed with OCD and have only recently gotten it under control. So, I’m wondering: How do I best help him? I have already told him I want him to see our school counseling center (a service I have used for my own issues), and we have a plan to call together in a few days. But I worry that he won’t be honest with the psychologist and won’t get anything out of it. I also worry what this relationship will do to my mental health. I have just barely got my issues under control, so I worry taking on such a big portion of his will push me over the edge, but he doesn’t have any close friends save his ex-girlfriend. I have considered contacting her to try to help me talk to him and convince him of the seriousness of this all and learn more about his history of anxiety (because he won’t talk about it much), but I know she doesn’t like me and I don’t want to create any problems.

How can I best help this guy I care so much about without harming my fragile mental health? — Anxious about Anxiety

I applaud you for working to get your OCD under control. I know that was challenging, and I’m sure it feels good to have a handle on it. That said, let me emphasize how important it is for you to continue to prioritize your mental health. Just because you’ve experienced similar difficulties as your boyfriend does NOT mean that you need to become his nurse or personal subject-matter expert on anxiety.

To support your boyfriend the best, you need to remember to play a sideline role in his journey. Attend a few (but not all) therapy sessions with him, encourage him when you can, be positive and patient as often as possible. Be there for him emotionally and physically, but allow him to do the work on his own.

It’s going to be easy, and probably tempting, to take on a larger role than that. Maybe scheduling his counseling sessions for him, or pushing him to do certain mental exercises that you think will work, or telling him what to talk to his counselor about. I promise you – this is only a recipe for disaster. He needs to make progress on his own. That means on his own time, in his own way and without a crutch to drag him through it.

The problem is, you’ve already started taking on a “crutch-like” role. While your intentions are good, you were the one to initiate the counseling sessions, not him. And you’ve even considered reaching out to your boyfriend’s ex to discuss the history that HE won’t talk to you about. What’s even more telling, however, is that you fear your boyfriend won’t be honest with a counselor. This series of facts likely means one critical thing: Your boyfriend isn’t ready to confront his issues.

No amount of therapy, support, coaching, positive reinforcement, whatever, will help someone who isn’t fully ready to commit to working through their issues. The less prepared someone is the more they’ll rely on other people to get them through it, instead of relying on themselves. When that happens, a slew of unhealthy relationship demons are born: You might begin to feel burdened and responsible for his successes, his failures, his happiness and his sadness; He might feel unable to work through his issues without your help, and he could become insecure and codependent on you.

Understand that it may not be possible to stay in this relationship without being adversely affected. Even if he becomes a stellar example of independently taking on his mental health issues, and even if you’re the most supportive, patient girlfriend in the world…you may still be adversely affected. You’re already wracked with worry – worry that he won’t be honest with his counselor, worry that you’ll slip back into old patterns you tried hard to overcome. Worrying about anxiety will prove to be a very self-fulfilling prophecy.

One last important fact: You have permission to MOA, for whatever reason. There’s no threshold that has to be reached before you can consider breaking up, no boxes that need to be checked before it’s “acceptable” to end your relationship. You’re not married, it’s been three months, and you’re only nineteen. You don’t have to feel guilty if you can’t or don’t want to handle this. Put yourself first in your own life.

*ReginaRey (Real Name: Rachel East) is a full-time Events & Promotions Coordinator and a part-time freelance writer focusing on dating and relationships. One day, after tackling grad school, she plans to be your Marriage and Family Therapist…because the only thing better than talking about relationships all day is getting paid to talk about relationships all day. You can check out her weekly column here and follow her on Twitter @MissRachelEast.


33 comments… add one
  • rainbow December 27, 2011, 7:52 am

    It’s been 3 months and you’re already overfunctioning? This doesn’t look good.
    Lay back, watch the guy live his life, and decide if you like how he does it. If you don’t, move on.

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  • fast eddie December 27, 2011, 8:37 am

    It’s very difficult to be involved with someone who has problems of this magnitude. As Rachel pointed out please don’t take on the responsibility of being his care giver and leave his therapy to professionals. Hopefully you can be a supportive friend and maintain enough separation to keep your own equilibrium.

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  • Allison December 27, 2011, 10:30 am

    I’m not an expert on panic attacks, but I didn’t know that seizing uncontrollably was part of it. Not trying to say it wasn’t, but if his panic attacks haven’t been evaluated by a professional yet, then it might be a good idea.

    The beginning of a relationship is about learning about the other person and choosing them, or not. It’s not about choosing the person you improve them into. If he doesn’t have his anxiety under control, then it’s your job to decide whether that’s acceptable for you or not.

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    • AKchic December 27, 2011, 3:05 pm

      Seizing can be. Seizing can also be an attention-getting thing. The question is which is it: Attention-getting or actual issue. If it’s an actual issue, is it psychosomatic or a real problem caused by overstimulation or something else entirely.

      In any case, he needs to figure it out himself, not depend on her to walk him through every attack he has.

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    • Caris December 27, 2011, 9:34 pm

      my bf suffered panic attacks and he’d seize uncontrollably. Once he figured he was getting seizures cause of anxiety, he did what he could to never have them again. So far he’s succeeded 😀

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  • callmehobo December 27, 2011, 10:58 am


    You’re in college. Your first obligation is to YOU, your mental health, and your academic career. This is the only time in your life when your needs always come first.

    Your heart is in the right place, but you are doing the wrong thing. You are being a caretaker, not a girlfriend. This is a recipe for disaster. You know why? Because you give and give (or in some cases, force) your assistance on someone else and they don’t acquire any personal coping skills, and you end up drained and, sometimes, resentful.

    I think you might need to step away from this relationship. It’s nothing about him. It just sounds like you aren’t the healthy choice for one another. Make the healthy choice for BOTH of you, and cut your losses. It sucks, but it will be better in the long run.

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    • shelllo December 27, 2011, 11:38 am

      I agree completely, great advice! I think often people think that putting themselves first is being selfish, and we were taught from such a young age that selfishness is morally wrong. Unfortunately, that can lead to a lot of people being in similar situations as the LW and never prioritizing their own happiness (and I believe happiness spreads happiness more so than back breaking generosity).

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    • LW December 27, 2011, 11:46 am

      First I want to thank Rachel for the advice and everyone commenting for their comments. Especially I want to thank Rachel for reminding me I had permission to leave. I had previously tried to leave when I started to find out the extent of him issues, but somehow got pulled back in, mostly because I felt an obligation to him. I know more than anything I always want to take care of everyone in my life, and realizing that isn’t always a good thing is definitely hard for me. In a bit of an update, I’m no longer seeing him but have moved into the role of his friend. Ironically it was him who finally realized I was taking on too many roles and this wasn’t a good time. I’m working on trying to be less of a crutch and just be there when he needs me.

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      • ReginaRey December 27, 2011, 12:18 pm

        Thanks for the update! Just remember that even in a friend role, things could be difficult between you and him, and there’s no guarantee that even this role won’t give you any anxiety. It’s hard to be friends with someone you’ve dated, unless maybe there are years in between, so just be congnizant of whether your new status with him is still negatively impacting your mental health. It’s not selfish or mean of you to take care of yourself.

      • LW December 27, 2011, 1:20 pm

        *his not him

  • applescruff December 27, 2011, 11:07 am

    Allison is right, panic attacks don’t involve seizing. Not to say he wasn’t having a panic attack, but the seizing is not a normal symptom. If he ended up in my office I would refer him for a medical evaluation. LW, you’re within your rights to go with him for his first therapy appointment (in my office our first contact is a walk-in, and I’ve had friends or significant others sit in on those) but after that you’re probably better off trusting your boyfriend to be honest, and trusting his psychologist to ask the right questions. You can be supportive, and you obviously are, but make sure you’re not taking responsibility for his treatment. If your college counseling center doesn’t have a session limit, or you still have sessions remaining, it might be a good idea to check in with your therapist to make sure you’re taken care of. Good luck!

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    • Stephanie December 27, 2011, 11:15 am

      Piggy-backing off of this, “uncontrollable eye rolling” is also not a symptom of severe anxiety. As a mental health professional, I’ve seen SO many people with severe anxiety – the symptoms you’re describing are separate physical symptoms. But, again, that’s not to say he doesn’t have an anxiety disorder.

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  • caitie_didn't December 27, 2011, 11:21 am

    RR”s advice is great as usual! I third the concern that panic attacks don’t normally involve “seizing uncontrollably” or “eyes rolling uncontrollably”- that’s called HAVING A SEIZURE. So I think first and foremost, the boyfriend needs to be evaluated by a medical professional, who could then refer him for psychiatric/counselling if necessary (at least at my university health centre, you need a referral from a doctor to see a psychiatrist, and I believe counsellors accept walk-in patients).

    The overall theme of this letter seems to be that the LW wants to “save” her boyfriend and her relationship, which seldom, if ever, works. The boyfriend needs to *want* to gain control of his anxiety (or whatever is causing this) and a relationship where one party is the saviour never works in the long run, especially if that saviour has mental health issues of their own.

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  • shelllo December 27, 2011, 11:33 am

    College is a very stressful time without adding serious issues that your boyfriend faces. This might not be very popular, but I would suggest taking a break if you find yourself overwhelmed to focus on yourself, your studies, and your mental well being. Getting back together would be on the condition that he is seeking help for his anxiety. While it may sound like I’m suggesting an ultimatum, it is really more about self preservation. College is the one phase of your life where you can truly put yourself before anyone else. Take advantage of that time for personal growth and career development.

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  • bittergaymark December 27, 2011, 11:54 am

    MOA. No, seriously. What is it with so many LWs constantly trying to “fix” their boyfriends? And yes, he is clearly “broken.” Meaning that he is obviously NOT ready to handle the stresses of a real relationship. He needs to get his anxiety issues under control all by himself. Do you REALLY want to spend a lifetime walking on eggshells? Ever fearful of prompting another attack simply because You asked him to take out the garbage? Hey, it sounds ridiculous, I know… But it happens. It happens a lot. And it happens all the time simply because too many people are afraid to be alone, and too many people are also somehow deluded into thinking they have some magic wand that will wish all their partners flaws away…

    Get. Out. Now.

    PS — If you think college finals are tough… Hah! Try living in the real world for a moment. Trust me, having been there, done that — college IS a fucking breeze. Meaning if he can’t handle finals… good luck in the work place… It sounds bitchy, I know. But bittergaymark my word, it’s the truth.

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    • Carolynasaurus December 27, 2011, 12:13 pm

      Maybe it’s a function of your major and field, but as an engineer, finals are definitely more stressful than the real world. Having two major projects, dozens of impossibly hard math problems to solve, equations to memorize, and finals to study for is much worse than working on a couple of projects for months at a time. At least in the real world, there comes a point every day where you put your work down, head home, and can turn your brain off. College is go go go all the time, especially finals.

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      • LW December 27, 2011, 12:23 pm

        I couldn’t agree more! I hope the real world isn’t as hard as organic chemistry!!!

      • kali December 27, 2011, 4:01 pm

        Very few things are as stressful as O-Chem.

      • oldie December 27, 2011, 2:54 pm

        Nope, as an engineer I can attest that real world is more stressful. Obviously, everyday on the job isn’t as stressful as exams in school, but the most stressful days on the job are more stressful than exam days.

      • bittergaymark December 27, 2011, 4:02 pm

        Yeah, I don’t know anybody my age that thinks that school was more stressful than real life… I just don’t.

      • Addie Pray December 27, 2011, 4:09 pm

        My job feels like finals week… but the finals never end. 7 years of finals week. FML. So, yea, I second bittergaymark.

      • Rachel December 27, 2011, 6:44 pm

        Yeah, I’m with you. I’m in grad school, and finishing up my phd is way harder than just having classes my first year, which was way harder than undergrad. As I see how busy my advisor and her peers are, I just don’t see college being harder than real life.

    • katie December 27, 2011, 9:08 pm

      i have to agree- the real world sucks! i had many many nights full of tears trying to figure it all out. for me, the biggest thing was that its not just one thing, its your whole life.. its not just finals, its everything. and it never ends! finals end. rent never ends.

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  • Carolynasaurus December 27, 2011, 12:06 pm

    Since I don’t think anyone else has brought this up yet, I think you are projecting your own issues onto him. You admit to being OCD and I have to imagine that you could be seeing your own symptoms in him and assuming the worst. As others have said, some of his symptoms just don’t fit and it sounds like you are trying to make it fit because it’s what you understand. He needs a medical evaluation, by actual medical professionals. And if they find nothing wrong with him, just drop this! You will always see what you want to see in other people and you have to trust that if they are having problems with it, they will get the ball rolling on their own. It’s not your responsibility.

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    • LW December 27, 2011, 12:19 pm

      I think you are right that I am trying to understand things in the terms I understand, but there are a few things I think I can clarify. From what he has told me he has seen several medical professionals ranging from neurologists to psychiatrists to psychologists in his life. They have diagnosed the anxiety issues, not me. I’m not saying there aren’t other possibly unrelated issues there. As many people pointed out the seizures don’t fit in with what a panic attack normally is. That is why i said what “I think was a panic attack.” I was just trying to explain what happened in the best way I could. To be honest explaining it as a seizure isn’t really correct either. Finally, I definitely don’t “want” to see my problems in anyone, nevertheless someone I care about, especially when I worked so hard to move past them.

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    • savannah December 27, 2011, 12:46 pm

      “And if they find nothing wrong with him, just drop this!”- While I agree that people process the world with the tools they have, your advice struck me as insensitive at best. There is clearly something going on with her boyfriend, what with seizures and the like. She may have been more open to the intent of your advice if you had not delegitimized her worries and fears.

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      • Carolynasaurus December 27, 2011, 1:17 pm

        But it’s not her responsibility! It will never be her responsibility! It will always, ALWAYS, be his. Unless he is having a seizure in front of her, she can’t intervene unless he lets her. He needs to take responsibility for his own health and, as much as it sucks to watch, she has to either drop trying to help him if he won’t accept it or move on. Either way, she’s got to drop something.

  • oldie December 27, 2011, 12:14 pm

    This guy sounds both epileptic and more problem than you’re equipped to deal with. Guys are far too reluctant to seek professional help, even a simple visit to a family doctor. Drugs are very effective in treating epilepsy. If your bf isn’t willing to follow your advice and see the campus doctor and counselor, you should MOA. It is very difficult and frustrating to try pushing a string.

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  • AnotherWendy December 27, 2011, 1:20 pm

    I was in a similar situation with an ex and my counselor asked if I thought I was better equipped to help with his issue than a neutral person trained to help. That has always stuck with me when I start feeling pulled into problem-solving someone’s mental health issues. I am not the person they need for help. Remember boundaries are for the good of your own mental health. It’s great you are still his friend but make sure you don’t drift to being his crutch.

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  • WatersEdge December 27, 2011, 2:55 pm

    “The problem is, you’ve already started taking on a “crutch-like” role. While your intentions are good, you were the one to initiate the counseling sessions, not him. And you’ve even considered reaching out to your boyfriend’s ex to discuss the history that HE won’t talk to you about. What’s even more telling, however, is that you fear your boyfriend won’t be honest with a counselor. This series of facts likely means one critical thing: Your boyfriend isn’t ready to confront his issues.”

    I thought Regina was going to finish the sentence a different way… “You are letting your anxiety get the best of you, and you are over-managing this situation.” As you say above, you were over-involved in this situation.

    FYI- there are whole range of conversion disorders which describe how extreme the physiological reactions to overwhelming emotion can be. If not a panic attack, they could still be an anxiety response. Obviously see a doctor, but my money is on panic.

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  • AKchic December 27, 2011, 3:12 pm

    Personally, he sounds more epileptic than panic attack. Having a friend who is epileptic, and having coped with a few minor episodes of his, this does sound very familiar.

    Does your boyfriend drink often? Sometimes, minor epileptic episodes is triggered by stresses and/or alcohol. It’s not your job to ensure that your boyfriend is calm at all times. Or managing his own health/well-being.

    It’s nice that you are helping him by going with him the first time around, but he needs to be going to doctors on his own. What happens when/if you aren’t around, or if/when you two break up? If he isn’t willing to help himself, then you need to walk away. Anyone not willing to help themselves isn’t ready to be in a real relationship and is just looking for a surrogate mother figure.

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  • theattack December 27, 2011, 11:57 pm

    This might sound insensitive, but it is almost impossible to have a healthy relationship with someone like this until they get their issues under control. I’ve been there and done that from the ages of 18 to 20. It was the most miserable time of my life, and I regret every minute of being in that relationship. I know you want to help him, but you can’t. He’s the only one that can help himself, through reaching out to professionals. Even though he doesn’t have close friends, he’s probably better off not having a girlfriend who he can lean on. Just like the advice says, he’s going to start using you as a crutch. You can let him know that you do really care about him, and you will help him if he needs it, but you can’t be in a relationship with him right now because you yourself are trying to heal still. You don’t have to worry about putting the blame on him.

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  • Michelle December 28, 2011, 11:40 am

    It’s very very hard not to ‘help’ (enable) someone like this. You have to let him work through some of it on his own. This does not however mean you can’t be patient when he has an attack, and not blame him for something that is happening to his body without his control. He has to want to get help himself though, and that’s the key. You can’t let him rely on you for everything. It’s a very fine line between support and enabling.

    I’m seeing comments about epilepsy, and while i do agree that 3 hours is hugely crazy for a panic attack, i have had panic attacks that i start to shake quite violently, i’m chilled and cant get warm, and i cant stop until i can lay down and go to sleep it off (i cant relax any other way, and meds dont help me if it’s already started). it’s almost like you’re going into shock, and it’s scary. but he does need to get fully checked out to rule out any other major issues.

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