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 what to say to them that diminishes their distress.
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 family members or friends with anxiety.
Living With Anxiety
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 come face to face with a bully at school. It's much more complex, much less controllable, and with passage of time, more difficult 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 leads to more negative thinking, which then precipitates Anxiety can have physical manifestations, such as hyperventilation, sweating, nausea, etc., which can be very troubling. 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 prevalent these symptoms can get.
Anxiety can also cause people to fear the anxiety itself, which unfortunately affects other areas of their life. 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). So when someone starts to fear their own anxiety and its symptoms, they may also develop new anxieties, or find more situations to provoke anxiety.
Learning to Forget What You Think About Anxiety
As someone with family members or friends who have anxiety or a panic disorder, it's important to understand what anxiety really 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 and understand, because it is so much different than the normal anxieties people 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 has different needs. There are some people who want to talk about their anxieties, and there are others who may have never mentioned it. So even with these do's and don'ts, it's hard to know exactly what you should do. However, this can be a helpful guide.
- 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 again (because for many, the fears and thoughts are nearly exactly the same each time).
- DON'T get frustrated. 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 spent with others makes it harder to think about their anxieties, and that makes 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 trigger an attack. Let them bring it up with 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.
- DO be forgiving. Anxiety can make people irritable. 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 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 push them too hard 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, or a partner and you'll give them the best opportunity to overcome their anxiety and grow closer to you as a result.
Those that love someone with anxiety may feel helpless that they cannot help their partner or friend. Anxiety is treatable, but it’s also a very individual experience. Learning more about anxiety is the best thing you can do for them, as well as encouraging them if they decide they’re ready to treat it.