Some time ago, I read an article from The Mighty called “36 Things People With Anxiety Want Their Friends to Know” and wow, did it ever stick with me. Anxiety is something we all experience. Imagine that you have a job interview or you’re going on a first date….can you feel your heart pounding, your hands sweating, and those butterflies in your stomach at the mere thought? That’s anxiety.
For most of us, anxiety will be manageable. We get through the interview or date and our anxiety goes away. But anxiety disorders are different. People who experience anxiety disorders have anxiety that lasts longer, is more intense, and interferes with regular functioning. It may be hard for them to go to and perform at work or school, socialize like they used to, or keep up with things they usually enjoy because of the anxiety.
And what may others think or say if they don’t get the impact their anxiety is having on the person? “He’s a basket case”, “stop being so dramatic”, “calm down”, or “what’s her problem?” Sometimes people don’t understand how overwhelming the anxiety can be and that it can occur when the person is not facing any kind of threat or specific stressor.
There are some great thoughts and insights in the 36 things that may help with grasping the impact an anxiety disorder can have and what we can all to do support someone. Here are just a few highlights:
“It may seem irrational to you, but what I’m anxious about is very real for me.”
As outsiders, we may think that the person is worrying about nothing or making a mountain out of a molehill. Try as we might, we can’t reason the person out of feeling anxious by using logic to highlight the irrationality of their thoughts. What they are experiencing if part of the disorder, not a choice they are making, and challenging how they feel may just make the anxiety worse.
One way we can help is empathizing by talking about, rather than talking them out of, how they feel. Things like “It sounds like you’re really worried about this” or “This is overwhelming for you” are supportive and non-judgmental.
“Even when things are wonderful, I’m always waiting for something horrible to happen.”
“Even when things are wonderful, I am always waiting for something horrible to happen.”
Someone recently shared with me an example of living with an anxiety disorder at work. She was constantly worrying about not doing well and being fired even though her boss told her she was doing a great job. When she got a raise and a promotion, it was a double-edged sword. While she felt good about advancing, she also constantly thought about how much worse it would be to get fired from the new position and how disappointed everyone would be. She couldn’t stop the worry and stress and struggled to focus and concentrate.
Anxiety can be like waiting for the other shoe to drop. It tells you that something bad is going to happen, and so you wait, and struggle while you wait, even though it may never happen. But knowing this doesn’t make the feelings any less real, so showing empathy is key to being supportive.
“For real – it’s not you, it’s me…If I have a hard time making plans, don’t take it personally,” and “I need you to reach out to me, event when I’m so anxious I’ve stopped leaving the house. I need to know someone still cares and wants to see me.”
Socializing may be difficult when people are experiencing anxiety. They may feel too overwhelmed or scared to leave the house, worry about what would happen if they had a panic attack or felt anxious when in public, or not have the energy or focus to devote to a conversation. It’s a case of separating the person and the disorder – the person may want to make plans, but the disorder is preventing them from doing so.
Many of us want to be around people and talk out what’s bothering us, but we need to accept that this is not the case for everyone. Being at home may make people feel the safest and least anxious. As supporters, we can still connect to check in and let them know that we’re sticking with them. Call, text, e-mail, send a card, continue to invite them to make plans and don’t take it personally if they’re just not up to it.
“I don’t know what’s happening in my head a lot of the time either. I understand you don’t get it, but your efforts mean the world to me.”
We may never totally understand someone else’s thoughts and feelings or have them make sense for us. But experiencing the feelings ourselves is much less important than feeling with the person when it comes to being supportive. Listening to what people share without arguing or challenging goes a long way to helping them feel accepted and hopefully willing to open up and get support.
We don’t need to have all the answers. Even just saying something like “I can’t imagine how difficult this is for you” or “I don’t know what to say, but I’m here to listen” communicates that we want to connect and help them feel heard.
And, lastly, “I’m still me. I’m not my anxiety.”
This says it all. The person is still your friend, neighbour, brother, mom or whoever they have always been. They have all of their unique strengths and qualities that make them who they are and anxiety is just a part of the picture.
Thanks to The Mighty and their readers who shared these important reminders. Read the entire article here.
Want to learn more about how to support others living with mental health challenges? Consider taking a Mental Health First Aid course. Get the details here.