Anxiety is tough, isn’t it? Not just for the people that have it, but for you – the people that stick with them – while they’re going through it. It’s emotionally taxing on both ends, it’s physically demanding at times, and of course mentally demanding most of the time.
Plans have to be changed to accommodate the anxiety. Situations have to be avoided at times. Planning has to be just that bit more thorough. Emotional needs can change daily. It’s a lot to work through, and it can be hard to get in their head to understand on top of that.
It’s understandably confusing at times, so consider this your cheat sheet. 13 things for you to remember when loving someone with anxiety.
1. They are more than just their anxiety
No one likes to be defined by one attribute of themselves. If you truly want to be supportive of someone with anxiety, remind them that you appreciate the individual behind the anxiety. Recognise that they are more than just their anxiety.
It sounds like it would be common sense to do so, we don’t go around seeing people by one solitary attribute in most cases, but people have a tendency to become blind-sighted by mental health issues. They are still a human being with all the complexities that everyone else has. Please, remember that.
2. They can get tired easily
Anxiety is exhausting. It seems like the only people that understand how tiring it really can be is people with anxiety themselves. Anxiety causes people to live in hyper-tense states. They are always on alert, their mind is very rarely settled, and their body is always ready to fight or flight. With the hypertension comes fatigue. Situations that people without anxiety can just breeze through are more tiring for those with anxiety.
Ever had a stressful work week, where every day you woke up thinking “wow, I really hope I get a break soon”? That’s an anxious person’s every day, and it’s tiring. Remember that next time you’re pushing someone with anxiety to be more ‘productive.’
3. They can get overwhelmed easily
Tying into the previously noted hyper-tense state, they’re also overwhelmed easily because of it. They’re aware of everything going on around them. Every noise, every action, every smell, every light, every person, every object.For someone existing in such a hyper-alert state a situation that doesn’t seem that overwhelming (e.g. the thought of more than a handful of people talking in a room) can cause their head to spin. You can read more about that here.
When trying to encourage someone with anxiety to go somewhere, just keep in mind that the stimuli you enjoy can just as easily be overwhelming for them. Try not to lock them into the situation. Ensure they know they can leave and are capable of doing so at any point.
4. They are well aware their anxiety is often irrational
Being aware of the irrationality does not stop the thoughts from racing. It does not stop the thinking of hundreds of different worst-case scenarios. If it was as easy as saying “okay, that’s irrational – no point worrying about it,” the majority of those living with anxiety would not have problems with it anymore.
One of the worst things about anxiety is how aware of the irrationality they can be. Pointing out that it’s irrational doesn’t help – they already know this. What they need is compassion, understanding, and support – very rarely do they need advice on how irrational and pointless their anxiety it (because that’s not even advice.) You can learn more about that here.
5. They can communicate how they feel (you just have to actually listen)
Having anxiety does not mean that they are incapable of expressing or communicating. (Unless they’re panicking, in which case they likely can’t. Don’t try to get them to either!) They still like to talk and they still like to speak for themselves. They will tell you how they feel.
Often when people think someone with anxiety, or really any problem whatsoever, can’t or won’t communicate – it’s because they’re choosing not to, and it’s usually because the other party has been entirely dismissive the last time they opened up. So next time when you think they’re incapable of speaking for themselves, bite your tongue and give them the opportunity to actually speak. Then take the time to listen.
6. They don’t need someone constantly asking “are you okay?” while they’re panicking
When you see someone panicking and you know they have anxiety, do you really need to ask “are you okay?”
You already know the answer. Their heart is pounding a million miles an hour, their hands are clamming up, their chest is tightening, their limbs are vibrating from all the adrenalin and their mind has just sunken into the limbic system’s ‘fight or flight’ response. Honestly? Part of them probably thinks they’re dying. So instead of asking “are you okay?” try something a little more helpful and constructive. Good examples would be:
- “Remember your breathing”
- “Remember <insert whatever technique that has helped them before>”
- “Would you like help me to help you to somewhere quieter/safer/calmer?”
- “I’m here if you need me.” (At this point, you should leave them alone unless they ask)
- “You’re panicking, it won’t last. You’ve got past this before, you’ll get past it again”
But the key to all of this: If they ask you to leave them alone – leave them alone! They are experienced in handling their anxiety; let them get through it however they see fit.