How can I help a loved one with anxiety?

Jessica Kennedy, Mental Health America

If you love someone who has an anxiety disorder, there are a lot of ways that you can support them.

First step—just learn more about the condition. Read stories from other people who have had that diagnosis or a similar one. Sometimes the best way to really understand is to hear a moving story from someone in their own words.

Understand there’s a difference between stress and an anxiety disorder. We are all stressed about life sometimes. People with anxiety disorders are trapped inside their own heads. Making people feel weak because their brains work a different way however is just not helpful. You may think you’re giving “tough love” to somebody, but you’re probably making them feel worse.

Don’t demand that they follow specific treatment plans. If you had anxiety and found a certain type of medication or a particular therapist helpful, that’s great! You should absolutely share that information with a friend to be helpful. But don’t preach your way as the only possible way, since that’s between your loved one and their treatment team. There are many evidence-based treatments out there, and recovery is highly personal.

Ask the person you care about how they want you to respond to their anxiety. Some people want external help in getting rid of their anxiety by having friends remind them that it’s okay, that it’s not that stressful. Or they might find physical touch comforting. Other people may prefer that you ignore them and let them handle the anxiety on their own because the attention actually worsens the anxiety. Have an open conversation when somebody isn’t in the midst of a crisis. “Hey, I want to talk to you about something. When you’re feeling this way, how can I best support you?”

Pick good times to have conversations. Yelling at someone who’s in the middle of a panic attack for ruining a special event is not going to help anyone. Having a conversation after the fact about how you can help is a much better approach.

Try and compromise when it comes to different situations, especially if you’re with someone who has a phobia or social anxiety. For example, your boyfriend has social anxiety disorder and doesn’t do well at family holidays like Thanksgiving where he’s surrounded by extended family who is constantly asking him what he does for a living. You can work out in advance how you’re going to handle that situation—maybe you show up earlier than he does, or he can give a signal, or help him find a place to take a break and calm down when things get rough.

Please note that the important thing here is compromise. You should not have to feel like you’re giving up your whole life to support someone with anxiety. You are allowed to have and set boundaries of what you will and will not accept in your life, too. If you’re an extrovert who really values social events and needs to be around people, but your boyfriend won’t leave the house, you shouldn’t feel obligated to stay with someone who completely prevents you from doing what you love.

Don’t be trapped by someone’s anxiety. You shouldn’t feel like you are walking on eggshells or tiptoeing around someone’s feelings. It’s not fair for someone to expect you to cater to every emotion, regardless of whether they have a mental health diagnosis or not!

Finally, just treat them like a real person. They aren’t their disorder; that’s just something they have. You can—gently—call someone out on behavior, even if they have a diagnosis.

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