Knowing How Anxiety Works Can Help You To Better Support Loved Ones Without Inadvertently Making Their Anxiety Worse
When I first moved into my spouses house in 2001, she didnt want to include my name in our answering machine greeting. Because of our big age gap and same-sex relationship, she was justifiably anxious about how her parents would react to my having moved in so she kept it from them for several months. Though I felt a great deal of compassion for her and her situation, I was also frustrated that her anxiety was affecting meand I didnt like acting as though we had something to be ashamed of.
Scenarios like this are common when someone in your life is struggling with anxiety. Your loved one may feel so fearful that they avoid taking action, or act in ways that are inconsiderate or that increase your own anxiety. This might look like a boyfriend constantly putting off important tasks or discussions, a friend complaining about being lonely but refusing to date, or a boss always focusing on what could go wrong, making everyone miserable. Its difficult to witness anxiety in someone you know, and its even harder when their anxiety triggers yours.
But what can you do to help anxious people?
While its upsetting and frustrating to see these folks suffer, there are things you can do to help. Here are some of the strategies I recommend based on my book, The Anxiety Toolkit.
Address Your Own Feelings About Your Partners Anxiety
Dating someone with an anxiety disorder can be difficult, and you may find yourself having intense reactions to what is going on with your partner. This is normal and understandable. Taking some moments to practice some self-care and empathy for yourself is vital.
If it feels difficult for you to cope, or if you find yourself reacting in unhelpful ways to your partners anxiety, you might want to consider entering counseling or therapy.
How You Can Help
It might seem small, but just doing things together, being there and staying connected can be a big help.
Depression and anxiety are so common that its highly likely that at some point youll know someone who might be experiencing it. It might be someone in your whnau, a team-mate or someone from your community. People with depression and anxiety are more likely to get through with help and support than on their own.Being depressed and anxious can be a really lonely experience. Sometimes the most important thing is having supportive people around or checking in. Having a coffee, watching television, phoning or texting to say Hi can help a lot. When youre feeling down, knowing that people are thinking of you can really lift your spirits.Often when people are feeling bad they dont want to go out and do anything. Everything feels just too hard. So encouraging them to do something with you is a great support. It could be something small like watching funny video clips, listening to music, going for a walk or window-shopping. Think about something you both like to do. There are different things you can do, depending on who youre trying to help:
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How Can I Help A Loved One With Anxiety
If you love someone who has an anxiety disorder, there are a lot of ways that you can support them.
First stepjust learn more about the condition. Read stories from other people who have had that diagnosis or a similar one. Sometimes the best way to really understand is to hear a moving story from someone in their own words.
Understand theres a difference between stress and an anxiety disorder. We are all stressed about life sometimes. People with anxiety disorders are trapped inside their own heads. Making people feel weak because their brains work a different way however is just not helpful. You may think youre giving tough love to somebody, but youre probably making them feel worse.
Dont demand that they follow specific treatment plans. If you had anxiety and found a certain type of medication or a particular therapist helpful, thats great! You should absolutely share that information with a friend to be helpful. But dont preach your way as the only possible way, since thats between your loved one and their treatment team. There are many evidence-based treatments out there, and recovery is highly personal.
Pick good times to have conversations. Yelling at someone whos in the middle of a panic attack for ruining a special event is not going to help anyone. Having a conversation after the fact about how you can help is a much better approach.
Dont Try To Cure Them
This may sound silly and obvious. But its not unusual for friends to think theyre helping by pressuring someone with anxiety into situations. Someone with social anxiety, for example, does not need anyone to force them into conversations with strangers. Your friend probably already has a therapist. They dont need unsolicited advice or support elsewhere.
How To Help Your Anxious Partner And Yourself
Living with anxiety can be tough your thoughts might race, you might dread tasks others find simple and your worries might feel inescapable. But loving someone with anxiety can be hard too. You might feel powerless to help or overwhelmed by how your partner’s feelings affect your daily life.
“We often find that our patients’ … partners are somehow intertwined in their anxiety,” says Sandy Capaldi, associate director at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at the University of Pennsylvania.
Anxiety is experienced at many different levels and in different forms from moderate to debilitating, from generalized anxiety to phobias and its impacts can vary. But psychiatrists and therapists say there are ways to help your partner navigate challenges while you also take care of yourself.
Start by addressing symptoms.
Because an anxiety disorder can be consuming, it can be best to start by talking with your partner about the ways anxiety affects daily life, like sleeplessness, says Jeffrey Borenstein, president and CEO of the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation in New York. Something as simple as using the word “stress” instead of clinical labels can help too. “Often people may feel a little more comfortable talking about stress as opposed to … anxiety ,” Borenstein says.
Don’t minimize feelings.
Encourage don’t push.
But Try Not To Aid The Person’s Avoidant Behavior
If you give your loved ones permission to sit out situations that make them anxious, it doesnt help them with their anxiety in the long run, psychologists say. A better way is to gently encourage them to push themselves.
You’re trying to get them to start approaching the worldeven if they feel some anxiety, explains Shanley, author of The Social Anxiety Workbook for Work, Public & Social Life: Strategies to Decrease Shyness and Increase Confidence in Any Situation.
Also Check: What Kind Of Doctor Treats Anxiety
How Can I Help Someone With Anxiety Over Text
When it comes to anxiety, Lyons says face-to-face communication is best. But alas, thats not always possible. If you have to help a friend over text, let them know youre there in an unintrusive way.
Lyons suggests sending them a fun article or a meme that made you think of them. Establishing a connection can go a long way. And from there you can ask how theyre doing and provide further support.
How Do I Know If Someone Has Anxiety
Anxiety is worrying that is intense and wont go away. Everyone worries sometimes, but worries that get in the way of life are a medical problem.
You can tell if anxiety has gotten out of control if a loved ones worries are stopping them from doing the things they need to do, like going to school or getting along with others. Anxiety is also a problem if its keeping them from feeling good about life.
Anxiety can cause a number of other symptoms. Often those symptoms are things you cant see, but sometimes anxiety causes physical symptoms, too. Along with worrying, folks with anxiety might have:
A fear of losing control
Also Check: How To Tell If Nausea Is From Anxiety
Match Your Support To Their Preferences And Attachment Style
Its best to ask someone what type of support they prefer rather than guess! However, we know from research that people who have an avoidant attachment style are likely to respond best to strong displays of concrete practical support. That could include helping the anxious person break tasks down into manageable steps, or talking through specific options for how to deal with a difficult situation, like how to respond to an angry email, but still acknowledging their autonomy and independence while doing so.
Other people are more likely to prefer emotional support, especially those who are securely attached, or who have a preoccupied attachment style due to a fear of being abandoned or of their emotions being overwhelming to others. Folks like this respond well to statements emphasizing that theyre part of a tight teamfor example, their supporter saying, This is tough but we love each other and well get through it together.
What If The Treatments Dont Seem To Work
Effective treatments for anxiety dont always work quickly, and its easy to get discouraged. Psychotherapy might take several months to make a difference. Medications can be even more frustrating: It can be 4 to 6 weeks before they really work.
That said, if a couple of months have passed and nothing is working, or if the situation is getting worse, go back to your provider. Doctors assume things are going well if they dont hear from you. Let them know things arent getting better, and they can give you other options.
Recommended Reading: How Do You Know If You Have An Anxiety Attack
How Can I Best Cope With An Anxiety Disorder
There are several steps you can take to cope with anxiety disorder symptoms. These strategies can also make your treatment more effective:
- Explore stress management: Learn ways to manage stress, such as through meditation.
- Join support groups: These groups are available in-person and online. They encourage people with anxiety disorders to share their experiences and coping strategies.
- Get educated: Learn about the specific type of anxiety disorder you have so you feel more in control. Help friends and loved ones understand the disorder as well so they can support you.
- Limit or avoid caffeine: Many people with anxiety disorder find that caffeine can worsen their symptoms.
- Talk to your healthcare provider: Your provider is your partner in your care. If you feel like treatment isnt working or have questions about your medication, contact your provider. Together, you can figure out how to best move forward.
Recognize When Your Friend Is In Trouble
Its important to remember that if your friend is experiencing an anxiety attack, they may not be willing or able to talk about it. Anxiety can take over someones brain in a funny way and make help-seeking behaviors difficult to engage in. As such, you should try to recognize when your friend is having anxiety issues. There are a variety of symptoms that can demonstrate when someone is having an anxiety attack, and these symptoms may manifest themselves in ways that are physical, emotional, or cognitive. Make sure to recognize these symptoms so you can tell when your friend is in pain.
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Who Can Diagnose Anxiety Disorders
If your provider finds no signs of physical illness, they may refer you to a psychiatrist or psychologist. These mental health professionals specialize in diagnosing and treating mental illnesses. They may use specially designed interview and assessment tools to figure out if you have an anxiety disorder. Typically, the provider bases a diagnosis on:
- Your reported symptoms, including how intense they are and how long they last.
- Discussion of how the symptoms interfere with your daily life.
- The providers observation of your attitude and behavior.
Providers also consult the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders . The American Psychiatric Association publishes the DSM-5. Its the standard reference manual for diagnosing mental illnesses.
Practical Tips For Helping A Friend With Anxiety
Helping someone with anxiety can be intimidating. Often, the anxious person feels completely overwhelmed by their anxiety, especially if they experience panic attacks or find themselves gripped by anxious thoughts .
If your anxious friend doesn’t understand their anxiety yet, they may not be able to give you a clear answer about what you can do to be helpful to them. Use the ideas below as a starting point. The same advice applies whether the anxious person you’re trying to help is a friend, your spouse/partner, or another family member. You can always show this article to your anxious friend or loved one and get their feedback on what applies to them and what doesn’t.
If you’re looking for suggestions for how to help someone with anxiety attacks in particular, you’ll find a specific section on that at the bottom of this article. Much of the advice below also applies to how to help someone with depression. There is a lot of overlap between depression and anxiety, and many people who experience one experience the other.
1. Educate yourself about what can help anxiety.
In addition, there are specific types of anxiety strategies that are suited to being done with an accountability partner:
2. Help your anxious friend break free of avoidance behavior.
Common examples of such behavior include avoiding:
- Making phone calls
- Getting started on a task that feels intimidating
- Repairing mistakes
Recommended Reading: How To Lower Stress And Anxiety
Recognize The Signs Of Anxiety
Some people experience a low-level hum of anxiety that hangs over them like a storm cloud, and others have more episodic seasons or days that strike like lightening, seemingly out of nowhere. If you feel confused, put off or even annoyed by your loved ones behavior, you need to slow down, not say anything , and pay attention. Identifying the signs and symptoms of anxiety is the first step toward helping the person you love.
There are three categories of symptoms to watch for:
- Easily startled
- Obsessive or compulsive behavior
Sometimes, you might be able to spot these symptoms before your friend or spouse or parent does. You might be able to help them identify what theyre experiencing by kindly asking, Hey, Im feeling some tension from you. Would you share how youre feeling?