When someone in your life is struggling with anxiety, it can be hard to put aside the things they do, and see their struggles as a symptom of anxiety, rather than a character flaw. But that’s exactly what anxious behaviour is – a symptom of a serious mental health concern, and quite a common one at that. Whether you have a partner who has difficulty making decisions and taking action, or a friend who complains about loneliness but constantly cancels plans, anxiety can present itself in many different ways. Understanding these can make all the difference, not just for your loved one, but for you. That’s why we’ve put together a list of six different ways that you can help someone with anxiety.
1. Understand the different ways anxiety presents itself
For your loved one, being anxious might mean they tend to avoid making decisions or appear to stick their head in the sand. For others, their anxiety might result in them being short-tempered and irritable. Those who struggle with chronic anxiety have usually developed several coping mechanisms such as overthinking, catastrophising, avoidant behaviour, overcompensating behaviours (including anger, aggression, or defensiveness), or pushing people away. Know that these patterns of behaviour are not only hard to break but that the person suffering is often unaware of them or their effect on other people. Learning about how your loved one’s anxiety presents itself can make it much easier to be compassionate and put you in a better position to help.
2. Offer the kind of support they need – not what you imagine they need
If your loved one has suffered with anxiety for a long time, and has seen a therapist at one stage or another, they might have more insight into their anxiety than you think. Having a compassionate but frank discussion about their anxiety (NOT whilst they are in the midst of an anxious episode) and how they would like to be supported can give you the best tools for helping them when they need it most. For example, your loved one might tend to be irrationally fearful when their anxiety sets in – but the last thing they want is for you to tell them that they’re being crazy or tell them to calm down. Instead, they might prefer for you to offer comfort without judgement, such as sitting down with them or embracing them, and saying, “It going to be OK. I’m here for you.” On the flip side, if your anxious loved one tends to have difficulty making decisions, they might find it very helpful if you can lessen their burden by taking the lead in certain situations. For example, rather than asking what they’d like for dinner, offer a suggestion, or offer to cook. The most important thing is to speak with them about how you can best help when they feel anxious.
3. Avoid trying to ‘fix them’
For someone who doesn’t often experience anxiety, it can be tempting to see anxiety through your own non-anxious lens and offer help or suggestions based on this. Unfortunately, this can be really unhelpful for someone suffering with anxiety. For example, if your loved one struggles with making decisions or finds themselves drained and lethargic when at the height of their anxiety, showing ‘tough love’ by trying to motivate them to take action or get up out of bed can enhance their feelings of anxiety. Instead, do what you can to help them return to feeling themselves, however that might look. This might mean bringing them a cup of tea and telling them there’s nowhere they need to be today, or, for someone who expresses their anxiety in terms of defensiveness and a short-temper, giving them some space and letting them know you’re there to talk or help whenever they’re ready. At the other end of the spectrum, avoid trying to take over and therefore remove your loved one’s autonomy. If all they need is a bit of rest and recuperation right now, that doesn’t mean they need you to treat them like a child and do everything for them.
4. Support them by supporting their therapy
The person in the best position to help someone with frequent feelings of anxiety is a therapist. Not only is a qualified therapist trained and experienced in helping those with anxiety, they are also an impartial third party with whom your loved one can feel safe, unjudged, and free to open up to. You can support your loved one by helping them to carry out their therapist’s recommendations. These might include some behavioural techniques for overcoming a panic attack or doing an activity that they find relaxing and soothing, for example.
5. Avoid stigmatising or shaming them
It may sound self-explanatory, but one of the best ways to help someone with anxiety is to avoid stigmatising or shaming them – even inadvertently. For someone with chronic anxiety, shame can be a huge part of their fears and anxious thoughts. They may be fearful of being embarrassed; of being considered incompetent; of being seen as ‘crazy’; of being labelled as ‘difficult’; or of being beyond help. These thoughts can stop many people from seeking the appropriate help, as well as stop them from reaching out to you and other loved ones for support. The most helpful thing you can do is to show patience and compassion, whilst being accepting of their limitations. Know that they are still the same person. Reassure them that your perception of them, and love for them, hasn’t changed, and avoid using labels or stigmatising language.
6. Put on your oxygen mask first
There’s a reason they tell you to ‘put on your oxygen mask before assisting others’ on an airplane. Setting boundaries with your loved one, whether they’re a partner, friend, or family member, is incredibly important for the both of you. This helps to ensure the person suffering with anxiety doesn’t become overly dependent on your support, and that you can fill your own cup from time to time. Although it can be tempting to try to relieve someone’s anxiety by being ‘their everything’, this won’t help either of you in the long run. Instead, encourage your loved one to seek out counselling or psychology services, and assist them with their recovery without forgetting about your own needs.
If your loved one is suffering with anxiety, seeing a therapist is the first step towards recovery. They can get in touch with us at Integrated Health Specialists for a confidential consultation today here, or by calling (07) 5569 0115.