Just as it’s incredibly hard living with an anxiety disorder, it can also be incredibly hard watching a friend or a loved one live with an anxiety disorder. As a sufferer of anxiety myself, I often feel incredibly bad and guilty when I have a bad day which leads me to turn to my friends for support. I don’t want them to have to look after me or even see me when I’m really anxious, but sometimes having someone to support you and look after you can be the best way through the rough patches. This week I wanted to write a post for all those reading this who don’t have anxiety themselves, but maybe have someone close to them who do, and who want to know more about some of the ways they can be a good support person.
The following is not an exhaustive list of tips and tricks, and everyone has their own style of caring, but hopefully it’s a decent place to start.
Listen to them. It may sound obvious, but there’s nothing worse than trying to talk to someone else about your anxiety only to be dismissed or completely shut down. Unfortunately this has happened to me before. I try not to hold it against the people who did that to me though: it can be really hard to know what to do when someone is trying to talk to you about anxiety. But it’s also hard for me, because I now feel like I can’t really talk to those people about my disorder anymore, which is a shame because they’re actually mostly people I really care about. So when someone comes to you and wants to talk about their anxiety, whether they’re having a bad day or just want to share their experiences with you, please don’t dismiss them or shut them down. Maybe you can’t relate to what they’re saying, but that doesn’t mean you can’t listen. Show them that you are listening to them, and that you believe in what they’re saying.
Remain calm. If someone comes to you and they’re anxious, maybe even panicking or on the brink of panicking, remaining calm yourself is of the utmost importance. I recognise that this is not an easy thing to expect: when someone else is anxious, it can be very unsettling to be around. But you freaking out as well is only going to make it worse. Staying calm creates a stress-free environment in which the person might also be able to calm down themselves.
Research it. The more you know about anxiety disorders, the more you’ll be able to understand what someone who suffers from one is going through. There is a wealth of information about anxiety disorders available online. If you’re not sure where to start reading, I’ve written about how it feels to have an anxiety disorder, and also specifically about panic disorder and panic attacks. Patient.co.uk is the website my doctor shared with me after I saw her about my anxiety and panic attacks: they have a good, easy-to-follow write-up about anxiety disorders which I can recommend checking out.
If you’re more into videos than reading articles, this video by British Youtuber Zoella is one that I keep coming back to when I need reassurance about my disorder. I find it enormously helpful to watch, and I’ve linked it to a few people who wanted to know more about anxiety and panic disorder. CrashCourse also produced a really informative and helpful video about anxiety disorders as part of their series on psychology.
Understand that their brain works differently to yours. If you don’t suffer from anxiety or another mental illness yourself, it can be confusing and frustrating to watch someone be so distraught over something that for you is so trivial as not to warrant a second thought. I’ve always struggled to find the right words to explain why this happens. So I talked to my friend Luke, who doesn’t have an anxiety disorder himself but has had plenty of experience dealing with people who do. He put it perfectly:
“Here is a crucial distinction: the fear itself the sufferer is experiencing is real and all too valid. That’s the whole point. That’s also where it ends. Whatever the sufferer is afraid of is not real danger. Fear of leaving the house, doing the dishes, calling someone on the phone – being in a place. This is what a casual observer might see – an insane person afraid of trivialities. The disorder creates fear where there is no need for it, and you have to remember and acknowledge that. In this way, you don’t trivialise the experience, leaving the sufferer feeling ashamed and weak – a sure-fire way to trigger more panic in the future. But you also don’t exacerbate the issue by agreeing that, yes, the dishes are terrifying, yes, this room freaks me out. The fear is real, but the danger is not.”
Talk to them about it. If your friend or loved one is suffering from an anxiety disorder, they might not feel like they can talk to you about it. They might really really want to talk to you about what’s going on in their head, but in an awful kind of self-perpetuating spiral of silence, their anxiety disorder might make them scared to talk about their anxiety disorder – scared, maybe, of how you’ll react. I know I’ve felt this way in the past. So it might help for you to approach them. Please note that this does not mean you force them to sit down with you and explain their every thought and feeling. This probably won’t help.
Rather, a more constructive way to approach the situation is to ask them, kindly, what helps them when they’re feeling anxious, or what you can do to assist them. As I stressed before, don’t force them into a conversation, but just let them know you’re there for them and you’re open to talking about it when they’re ready.
Encourage them to seek professional help. If someone in your life is really struggling with their anxiety disorder, encourage them to make an appointment with a doctor or a counsellor to talk about options for managing it. Both doctors and counsellors have studied mental illnesses, and are trained to deal with them. They know their shit.
At the same time, please bear in mind that this is probably a huge, difficult and scary step for your person to take, and they may not take it right away. Don’t force them to go, but let them know that you’re concerned about their health, and that when they’re ready to go to a medical professional, you’ll be supporting them 100%.
I realise everyone’s different, but for me, making a doctor’s appointment – which eventually led to me going on medication – was the best decision I could ever have made in terms of managing my anxiety. I can never stress enough that anxiety disorders are mental illnesses, which can be treated effectively with medication and therapy, just like physical illnesses. You can read more about my experience with medication here.
Be there for them! Let your person know that if they need to talk, or cuddle, or simply just be in the same room as someone else, you’re there for them. Let them know that you care about them and you want to see them well. If you can’t always be with them physically, maybe you can let them know that they can give you a phone call if they need to talk.
I realise that there are always going to be situations where you simply can’t be there for them. You have your own life and your own engagements, and this will sometimes mean that you can’t give your person the support they need. For these situations, perhaps you could sit down with them and plan alternative options for the times when you can’t be there, such as contacting other friends or family. I argue that people with anxiety disorders benefit most from support networks, rather than singling out an individual person to be their crutch all the time. The latter is deeply unhealthy.
Actually, I want to stress that it’s very important you don’t become this person’s only source of support. Yes, anxiety is an awful thing to live with and yes, if we care about this person a lot then we’re gonna want to do whatever we can to make them feel better. But it’s important that you give them room to figure out ways to cope on their own, and at the same time give yourself room to breathe and, y’know, focus on your own life and priorities. Because, as I said above, there will be times when you can’t be their rock. That’s just a fact of life. So it’s important that they know how to manage their anxiety on their own.
I’m just gonna quote Luke again real quick, cos he had something really important to say about letting someone become dependent on you: “… you find yourself under pressure to always provide understanding and support. Your problems and feelings become irrelevant. You have no room to move emotionally. You have formed an unequal relationship with this person. This is ok if your relationship is unequal by nature – say, if you are their parent. That comes with the territory. But in all other cases, this is an exhausting way to live, and completely unsustainable.”
Recognise their achievements. Trivial everyday things, such as doing chores, leaving the house, or even simply getting out of bed in the mornings, can be so terrifying as to seem impossible for someone who suffers from an anxiety disorder. With this in mind, make sure you appreciate the times when your person manages to achieve something their anxiety was making difficult for them. Even if this is something as small as getting dressed. Especially on bad days, this kind of support can make an enormous difference.
Don’t be condescending about it or lay it on too thick like, ‘Congratulations you special snowflake, you are the most amazing person who ever lived! Your illness is nothing and you are everything! Everything you do is the bestest!!!’ Simply saying, ‘Hey, I know that was really hard for you but you did it anyway, that’s great and I’m proud’ is enough.
Let them know that they are loved. When you’re living with severe anxiety, this can be an easy thing to forget. You hate your disorder, you hate yourself, and you can feel like a horrible person who is nothing but a burden to everyone in their lives. Obviously this is probably not actually the case, but anxiety disorders are really good at distorting self-perception as well as the way one perceives the world around them. Your person will really appreciate it if you remind them that, despite their illness, they are loved and cared for. Their disorder does not make them a shitty person, and they deserve to be well.
Remember that their anxiety is only a small part of who they are. Yes, this person has an anxiety disorder that affects the way they live their life. But this person is not an anxiety disorder. They are a person who has a mental illness. Don’t let that fact change the way you see them: don’t let your mind alienate them as ‘other’ and treat them as such. They are not weak, or useless. They are a freaking human being, a complex person with a range of different facets that make them who they are. Anxiety is just one of those.
Look after yourself, too. It can be difficult, draining, and sometimes even straight-up terrifying supporting someone close to you as they battle their anxiety disorder. There will be times when it will be incredibly hard for you to look after them. It’s important to remember that you’re a person too, you have your own problems and your own feelings, and those need to be looked after just as much as the person you’re supporting. If you’re finding it’s getting too much or too scary for you, don’t be afraid to talk to someone else about your experiences, to take time out, or maybe even to book an appointment with a counsellor yourself.
This week I have to thank both Kate and Luke for helping me write this post. Neither of them has an anxiety disorder themselves, but they’ve both had more than their fair share of dealing with people who have, and they were both really great at giving me different perspectives on this topic. Luke probably could have written this whole thing himself to be honest, and done a better job than me. This post has been my favourite one to work on so far, and it wouldn’t be anywhere near what it is without their input.