As a diagnosis, anxiety can sometimes be hard to understand because we all feel anxious at times, which is a normal response to stress. For instance, maybe you feel like your heart is beating faster before a big speech at work. Or you might find that you are feeling worried about taking an important test at school.
These stressors cause your anxiety, and when you finish the speech or take the test, your body should return to its normal state. For those of us who suffer from anxiety, there is no return to normalcy.
If you know someone with severe anxiety, you have probably found yourself wondering how you can help them. Here are three things that you can do to support the people in your life with severe anxiety.
Understand the different types of anxiety and seek to understand
There are different levels of anxiety and various anxiety disorders. Knowing a little about what your friend or loved one is feeling can ensure you are offering the best support.
People with General Anxiety Disorder often feel anxious about several issues, with no typical stressors. They may exhibit different levels of anxiety, such as mild, moderate, or severe.
Other anxiety disorders, like PTSD, panic disorders, and phobias, have distinct symptoms that differ from generalized anxiety. For instance, a person with PTSD might experience severe anxiety in certain situations, because of something traumatic that has happened to them.
Panic attacks have some severe physical symptoms, and while they are not life-threatening, they can be frightening. How you offer support, in this case, starts with how much you learn about what they are dealing with.
There are several resources available on mental illness and anxiety that you can read. If you are concerned about a loved one’s mental health, it is ok to ask them if they have contacted a doctor. Sometimes, they need expert help, but often they can also use the comfort of a friend who cares about them and offers to listen.
Knowing if it is time to see a doctor or a therapist can be a hard decision. It is scary to admit that you have a mental illness, but unburdening all the thoughts that go on in your mind to a total stranger, that adds to the anxiety.
If your friend is ready to take that step, be there, and support them. Just don’t always ask if their therapist has “fixed” it yet, or taught them how to cope. There is no “fixing” it only learning to live with it in a way that isn’t so debilitating, and it will take time.
Keep checking in on them
It can be so hard to live with anxiety. You want to see people and hang out with your friends, but those with severe anxiety have days when they can not participate.
They decline invitations to things they genuinely want to do. They worry that everyone hates them because of this, and no one wants to spend time with them, anyway. It creates an endless cycle of isolation.
One of the best explanations I have seen for this is in the movie ‘Frozen.” Elsa is experiencing anxiety that she will hurt Anna, and something will go wrong if they spend time together. Anna comes every day and asks Elsa, “Do you want to build a snowman?” Elsa is always waiting inside the door, battling with herself over accepting the invite to spend time with the sister she loves so dearly. Anna is rejected repeatedly, but yet she keeps coming back to check-in.
This situation is a struggle for both parties, as it doesn’t feel good to be continuously rejected. Understandably, you might want to stop extending an invitation that will be met with a “no.” When you realize that the rejection is not happening because they dislike you, or do not want to spend time with you, you can see it differently.
My sister has severe anxiety and hates going to the mall. Every time I would go there, I would ask her to go with me (because of my anxiety, I dislike doing things alone), and she would say no. I would get frustrated and feel like I should stop inviting her to do something.
Then one day, she told me how much the mall explicitly triggers her anxiety. So, I began to just ask her if she wanted to ride with me to drop off things or pick up the kids from school, so we could see one another and not deal with all the people.
Don’t give up; keep checking in and letting your loved ones know that you still love them despite everything their anxiety may tell them. Their anxiety takes the time to tell them you hate them, that you are mad, and don’t want to be around them anymore. The key is to combat their inner voices using evidence. If you always invite them, it is harder to tell themselves you do not want to see them.
Listen to them if they want to talk about their troubles
Active listening is a soft skill that is taught to various professionals to learn what their employees and their customers are trying to say. It involves observing the behavior and body language, and the words of the speaker. The benefits of active listening include:
- Building trust
- Identifying and solving problems
- Avoiding missing out on vital information
- Increasing your knowledge
Active listening is not that difficult to do, and it will help you and the person you are trying to support. Always listen to understand and not to respond. Sometimes, a person tells us about something they are going through, and we immediately give advice.
It is likely that we have been through something similar before and feel like we can help by sharing what we learned. This is hard to do (I still struggle), but it’s beneficial to the other person. It allows them to say everything they want to without having to respond to one of your points.
It builds a connection because they feel validated. You can let them know you are listening by nodding, saying things like “ok” and encouraging them to keep talking.
When they are done talking, then you can ask for feedback and offer any input. First, summarize back what you heard. You might say something like, “So, I hear you saying that you want to come with me places, but that the mall raises your anxiety because of the crowds of strangers.” They will then be able to let you know if you missed out on any critical information or misunderstood any of what they were trying to say.
Another active listening skill is to ask probing questions. These should questions that can not be answered with a “Yes” or a “No.” For instance, you might ask, “What it is about the crowds that cause you to stress?” These questions produce deep conversations, and might just help the other person articulate something they haven’t been able to before.
Anxiety is stressful for everyone
Everyone with anxiety handles it in their own way. Each day brings new challenges or old demons, and it can be an exhausting roller coaster for everyone involved.
No matter how you offer support to your loved ones, it is appreciated. This is especially so if you can remember that the most important thing you can do is offer them love and patience.
I know it’s hard to feel like you never know what to do or say to help someone you love to feel better. Listening to them without judgment is more important than you know.
Avoid saying things like calm down, or there is no reason to be anxious. These phrases will usually make it worse. Instead, validate their feelings, and remind them that they can do this.
Sometimes, any attempt at help or advice will feel like you are judging them, even if that is not your intent. The problem is that your friend with anxiety will add the fact that they feel like they aren’t meeting your expectations to the list of things they do wrong.
If they cannot implement your advice, it can up being just another failure. They are not trying to be complicated or argue with you. They just feel like one more failure might be the last one that they can endure.
So, don’t take it personally if they do not receive your advice well. Be kind to yourself as well, remembering to extend that love and patience inward.