Loving someone who suffers from anxiety can be extremely stressful and heartbreaking. You feel like your emotions are being juggled about in the air by an octopus who has had too much to drink. Feelings of guilt, frustration, confusion, fear and powerlessness keep spinning and twisting around in a blur.
While there are many things that are out of your control, there are some things that you should know about anxiety that can make a big difference to how you and the person you love deal with the situation.
1. It’s not in their head.
What suffers really want you to know is not just what anxiety is, but what it is like to live with anxiety every day.
While we all have times where we feel stressed or anxious, these feelings normally pass once the situation is over. However sometimes those feelings persist for days, weeks much longer. The ongoing physical tension and flow of adrenaline messes around with regular bodily functions. Anxiety is a diagnosable and serious condition that can cause insomnia, panic attacks, or play havoc with eating and sleeping patterns. People that suffer from persistent anxiety are often accused of faking it or doing it for attention. Usually the opposite is true. They’d rather not draw attention to themselves and risk being mocked or judged. Who would deliberately want to put themselves through such a negative and disruptive experience?
Not being believed just adds more anguish and makes them less likely to want to talk about what’s going on or seek help.
2. They are scared and exhausted
Being anxious for long periods is overwhelming. Not only are suffers scared of whatever object or situation is at the root of their anxiety, they are usually scared and confused by their strange thoughts and feelings. Sufferers generally know that their anxiety is irrational but it is an instinct that they simply can’t control. They’re frustrated that they can’t stay calm like a ‘normal’ person and are often ashamed of their behavior which takes a huge bite out of their self-confidence. Prolonged anxiety can also lead to depression or other mental health issues.
3. There are no rules
There are many causes and types of anxiety. It could be a reaction to ongoing stress, a phobia (like the fear of crowds or heights) or it could be the result of trauma. Also how sufferers express their anxiety varies greatly. For example, they could:
- Isolate themselves to avoid whoever or whatever causes their anxiety
- Develop nervous tics, obsessions or compulsions
- Turn to addictive behaviours like smoking or drinking in an attempt to block out their fear.
4. They are not broken
They are more than just their anxiety. They’re still the same person you know and love, they just have a health problem that you can’t see. Don’t exclude them or walk on eggshells around them. Their anxiety may only affect them in some situations but in others they may be fine.
5. They need you to listen without judgement
Often suffers just need someone to listen objectively so they can express their feelings and gain some perspective. They need you to believe that their fears and reactions are real and they need to trust you.
Sometimes just talking about their anxiety can trigger another episode so be patient and allow them to share with you at a pace that they feel safe with.
6. Know the warning signs
Learn what situations causes your friend or loved one to be anxious. Avoid drawing attention to potential triggers if possible. For example, if you see a spider don’t point it out or don’t keep talking about upcoming exams or changes.
7. Do your homework
Seek out resources available online or in your community. Learn more about anxiety. Talk to a mental health professional or other sufferers for advice on dealing with anxiety. You could also share what you’ve learned with other friends or family members to help build a strong support network.
8. There is help available
Sometimes it’s difficult to help a person suffering anxiety as they may not want your help or be aware of the extent of the problem. If you can, encourage them to seek professional help and offer to go with them. Talking to someone impartial who can recommend appropriate therapies can really help people manage or overcome their anxiety.
9. Avoid taking over
Let the person stay in control and be patient with them. Change itself can bring on anxiety. Don’t pressure them to move too quickly. Avoid offering ‘cures’ as they may not be appropriate. Don’t become their doctor or take setbacks personally or you may end up pushing them further away. Also acknowledge any progress no matter how small.
10. You can help them better by looking after yourself too
When someone is frequently anxious it can have a flow-on effect to everyone around them. If you spend a lot of time with them, you may develop negative feelings too. You might worry that getting them to confront their anxiety could push them over the edge or you might feel guilty for resenting the extra pressure you’ve been put under.
If you struggle to cope, you may not be in the best position to give support. Be conscious of your own self-talk and try to make it more positive. Look after your own health including eating well, getting enough sleep and giving yourself some time out. Consider seeing a professional counsellor or doctor yourself. They can help you find ways to deal with the situation, especially on the bad days.
If you care for someone with deep anxiety issues, don’t give up on them. Hang in there as there are no easy answers. It’s ok to ask for help and seek emotional support for yourself – that doesn’t make you a failure. Remember that you are doing the best you can at this time and sometimes the only thing you can do is hold their hand or hug them.