Anxiety is a condition that can close you off to others. For friends and family of those living with anxiety, this can represent a serious challenge. You want to help them deal with their condition, but you don't know how to help them or what you can say to snap them out of their struggles.
It's important to realize that while anxiety is not a physical condition, it's also not something that can be cured by logic or reasoning. Like a disease, anxiety is something that needs special treatment. In this article, we'll give a background on what it's like to live with anxiety, followed by information on how to help your friends with anxiety.
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Living With Anxiety
First and foremost, it's important that you understand what living with anxiety is like. Take my free 7-minute anxiety test now to start, and see what symptoms people deal with on a regular basis.
You need to realize that anxiety disorders are not like normal anxiety. It's not like the anxiety you feel before a meeting with your boss, or when you came face to face with a bully at school. It's much more complex, much less controllable, and something that can force changes on you that make it harder to cure.
Self-Sustaining Nature of Anxiety
The first thing to understand is that anxiety itself is self-sustaining. It causes problems with your mind and body that make it more likely to experience further anxiety. For example, anxiety changes brain chemistry in a way that creates negative thinking - negative thinking reduces the ability to think positively, which in turn makes it harder to control anxiety.
Anxiety also creates physical symptoms that cause their own anxiety - symptoms that are so severe that they perfectly mimic what it's like to live with some of the world's most serious diseases. Anxiety also creates hypersensitivity, which is a mental response that makes people more prone to noticing those physical symptoms and letting it affect them.
If anxiety were just nervousness and sweating, anxiety disorders may not be considered as serious. But anxiety is so much more than that, and the longer you live with anxiety the more symptoms you can experience.
Anxiety can also cause people to fear the anxiety itself, which unfortunately bleeds into other areas of their life. One of the more interesting aspects of anxiety is that when you're nervous about one thing (for example, social situations) you can become nervous about other things as a result (for example, amusement park rides). This is how anxiety works.
So when someone starts to fear their own anxiety and its symptoms, they may also develop new anxieties, or find more situations causing anxiety.
Learning to Forget What You Think About Anxiety
As someone with friends that have anxiety or family members that are struggling with panic attacks, it's important to forget everything you think you know about what anxiety is. For example, did you know that someone with anxiety can experience physical symptoms even when they're not mentally anxious? Did you know that one of the symptoms of a panic attack is a feeling of imminent death or doom, combined with intense physical symptoms that are nearly identical to heart attacks?
If you've never had anxiety, it's extremely difficult to empathize with and understand, because it is so much different than the normal anxieties people without anxiety disorders experience in their everyday life. If you start trying to "cure" your friend's anxiety by assuming you understand what they're dealing with, you're going to struggle, and you may actually upset your friend or family member more.
The Do's and Don'ts of Anxiety
With that in mind, it's time to go over some tips on how to help a friend with anxiety. Note that every person is different, and each person has different needs. There are some people that want to talk about their anxieties, for example, and there are others that prefer never to mention it. So even with these do's and don'ts, it's hard to know exactly what you should do.
- DO let this person know that they can talk to you about it openly, without any fear of judgment. It's very important that they know that you're there to lend them an ear, and that you aren't going to judge them or change the way you think/feel about them based on anything they say - even if they say the same fear over and over and over and over again (because for many, the fears and thoughts are nearly exactly the same each time).
- DON'T get frustrated. Remember, anxiety disorders are not just thought related - they're chemical as well. Those with anxiety really do know that their fears shouldn't bother them, but as hard as they try they can't stop, and expecting them to use logic to control their anxiety is extremely difficult, if not impossible.
- DO spend time with them as much as possible. You being around them is a bigger help than you realize. In fact, they may not realize it either. But time spend with others is time that makes it harder to think about their anxieties, and that time really does make a difference.
- DON'T bring up the anxiety often. This is a tricky one - while you want to be there to talk about it, there are some anxieties, like panic attacks, that can be triggered by thinking about it. In other words, if you ask someone "how are your panic attacks?" you may accidentally be causing them to think about their panic attacks when they hadn't been previously, which could actually trigger an attack. Let them bring it up to you.
- DO tell them to call you anytime, anywhere. Talking on the phone and knowing someone is there to pick up can actually be incredibly comforting to someone that is trying to control their anxiety. Anxiety can make people feel lost and alone. Knowing that someone is a phone call away reduces that feeling.
- DON'T let anxiety affect you as well. Make sure that you are working on your own stress and anxiety, because the way you feel can have an effect on the way others feel, especially as you spend more and more time again. If you're dealing with anxiety yourself, the other person is going to deal with more anxiety as well. Take my free 7 minute anxiety test to find out more.
- DO be forgiving. We keep emphasizing that anxiety can change neurochemistry for a reason. Anxiety can make people more quick to irritation. It's not in the control of the person with anxiety. Ideally, try your best to be forgiving. Let them know that you understand, and that even if it's not fair you're not going to quit the friendship because of it.
- DON'T expect massive, immediate turnarounds. Unfortunately, controlling anxiety does take time. Those that try to cure it too fast often find they have setbacks that are sometimes worse than the initial anxiety. It's very important that you understand that curing anxiety can take a lot of time, and even on the way there, there are going to be issues that come up and fears that they're going to have. It's natural.
- DO exciting activities. Try to be outdoors. Find things to do that don't involve alcohol (since alcohol can cause setbacks in anxiety treatments). Stay active. Exercise itself is a known remedy for anxiety, and creating new memories can help people cope with some of the stresses of life. So try your best to get out and do things together.
- DON'T guilt trip. It can be hard, but you have to remember that those with anxiety often struggle to get out of their own head. They want to relate to you, talk to you, and be friendly, but they have an incredibly hard time dealing with the thoughts they can't control. They take over their mind and their memories. If you guilt trip to try to get more attention or get them out of their bubble, they may withdraw further.
- DO be proud of them when they improve. They'll be able to see it on your face. Remember that anxiety changes thought patterns and can make people think and feel much more negative, which unfortunately means that many of them are going to interpret your facial expressions negatively, assuming you're annoyed with them or ashamed of them. Thus making sure to highlight your positive emotions and your pride - and actually being happy when you see recovery while avoiding feeling frustrated during setbacks - can be very valuable.
- DON'T give up hope. Anxiety is a treatable condition. The person in your life isn't going to always feel or believe it's treatable, and there are going to be times when even you think it might keep going forever, but the reality is that anxiety is perhaps one of the most treatable conditions available today.
- DO be yourself. You don't need to change who you are, and the person with anxiety doesn't want you to change either. You are close for a reason. Be yourself. The fact that you're looking for what you can do to help this person with anxiety proves that you're a good influence in their life. Be positive, have fun, and be the person that your friends or family member loves.
Dealing with anxiety is an uphill battle, and it does take a toll on others around them. Anxiety can strain relationships, and may even cause significant stress on a loved one. Some people find that they actually start developing anxieties of their own.
But a supportive friend is an extremely effective way to treat your own anxiety. Learn from the above tips to better understand how to help your friend, family member, boyfriend, girlfriend, or partner, and you'll give them the best opportunity to overcome their anxiety and grow closer to you as a result.
I've helped thousands of people overcome their anxiety and find out more about how to control their anxiety symptoms. Make sure your friend or your family member take this free test as soon as possible, to get a better idea of how to control your anxiety forever.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Jun 28, 2018.