How To Love Someone With Anxiety
Having anxiety isn’t easy. There is nothing more crippling than when our thoughts are consumed by our biggest fears. The world feels like it is crashing in, we experience physical symptoms, and carrying on with daily living is next to impossible.
However, I also know that it can be hard to love someone with anxiety, too. Hard in the sense that many people don’t know how to show their love when friends and family are feeling anxious. I have compiled a short list of tips I can share with you, for you to utilize when your family member or loved one or best buddy is ridden with anxious thoughts. Because while I know firsthand the difficulties that go along with living with anxiety, I also know that it can be a challenge for those people caring for us.
Read this list with caution - not all of my suggestions will apply to all people. But, it’s a start.
Anxiety, like any other mental illness, is very complicated in nature. It manifests itself in wildly different forms, and shows no preference for race, gender, age, or culture. My number one suggestion in learning to love someone with anxiety is to educate yourself and learn as much as you can about the illness. You don’t have to dedicate hours to reading the DSM - a simple Google search, or picking up pamphlets at a local clinic, will suffice. While the self-help section at bookstores can hold a certain stigma, there are many incredible resources there to teach you about anxiety and about caring for loved ones who suffer. Try and gather whatever information is accessible - the more we know, the more we understand.
Please, Do Not Say…
Two of the worst things to say to someone experiencing heightened anxiety or a panic attack are: “Calm Down” or “Just Relax”. Trust me when I say: “we would if we could!”. Often, what makes anxiety so frustrating is that it is unpredictable. Panic attacks can arise when we are confronted with a fear, but also at random times throughout the day. My anxiety is more generalized, which means that there is no clear precursor to a panic attack. They just… happen. (And by that, I mean I’ve had a panic attack walking home from work. No antecedent, no trigger. Just plain old anxiety rearing its ugly head).
That being said, I can assure you that when I’m on the street walking home and my panic sets in, I WOULD calm down if I COULD. The problem is, I can’t in that moment. For me, having someone point out that calming down or relaxing is the answer to my distress feels a little like they are minimizing or reducing the magnitude of the problem. Instead, I would rather someone validate what I am going through. “I know this is a tough moment, but you’ll get through it”, for example. Words that show whoever is suffering that they are not alone and that the distress won’t last forever.
That brings me to my next point.
Talk To Your Loved One About What They Need
Don’t be shy to ask your girlfriend, classmate, mother, etc. what they would want from YOU should they experience anxiety. Perhaps they need a tight squeeze, or maybe touch is the worst thing in the moment. Maybe they want you to repeat certain calming phrases, or maybe they would prefer if you stayed silent. Like I mentioned above, not everyone appreciates the same things when they are in a state of panic. So don’t hesitate to create a suggestion list with the help of your loved one. I can assure you that taking the time to do this will only help things in the long run (and will make your loved one feel a little less alone).
Listening Won’t Hurt
What I find frustrating about my own anxiety is that no one can really take it away. I know a lot of my fears are irrational and I can pretty much assure you that while it does feel like it, the world is not actually going to end. But, having someone to listen to me vent about my worries always, always helps. Sometimes it’s by phone, and sometimes it’s in person. Or sometimes it’s even by text.
Loved ones reaching out to you in times of need will not expect you to fix things, and will not expect you to have all the answers. Most of the time, we just want someone who will listen. Getting the distressing thoughts out into the open is the number one way for us to feel better, and doing so in the presence of someone we care about is very reassuring. So don’t put pressure on yourself to try and come up with exactly the right thing to say. Sometimes it’s okay to not say anything at all. Just be the sounding board we need.
Keep Your Emotions In Check
Often, anxiety creeps up on us and we need to cancel plans. Saying “no” to invitations, or cancelling on those invitations last minute, happens all too frequently because we get so anxious that we don’t feel safe in the world. This can be a huge inconvenience, and we know that. Nothing feels worse than making a commitment to be somewhere and then having to bail. We need to apologize, and come up with a reason for why we are bailing, and then live with both our original anxiety but now also the guilt we feel for cancelling.
Or, we snap. We get angry. Anxiety can turn us into the crankiest, coldest, and rudest people. And who do we snap at? The ones that are closest to us. Our loved ones. Obviously we don’t mean what we say - our bitterness is just a consequence of the heightened distress that we are feeling. But words can sting regardless.
What I ask of you is to please not get angry or upset. We understand that cancelling is a HUGE inconvenience, and we always wish we could be there. We know that not celebrating joyous occasions can make us look unsupportive but trust me when I say that the guilt for not showing up is always incredibly strong. And when mean things come out of our mouths - that is not us doing the talking. Those are anxiety’s words. So please shrug off any bitter remark or comment. Getting upset with us might be the easiest response, but not the most helpful in terms of supporting us and our anxiety.
There is nothing we want more than to be free of this illness. We know that loving us “anxious humans” is no easy feat, but hopefully these suggestions are a good starting point for learning to cope with the consequences of anxiety, just as we are learning to deal with it as well.