As a full-time therapist, I spend a lot of time helping people with anxiety. But very often, their progress can be unwittingly undermined by the people who are closest to them.
A large part of the problem for friends and family is knowing what they can do to help.
Quite often, you can feel just as out of your depth as the anxiety suffer does. You may feel you have to walk on eggshells, and this can be draining, both physically as well as mentally.
It can be very frustrating, because whatever you do just seems to make things worse, leaving you feeling helpless and confused. And when helplessness and confusion lead to frustration and anger, that’s when things definitely get worse.
So I thought it would be useful to share some ways that an anxiety suffer’s friends and family can really help (or at the very least not hinder) their recovery.
1) They are not an anxious person; they get anxious
This is an important distinction, because anxiety is a process, not a defining characteristic.
In other words, anxiety is something they DO, not something they ARE.
Anxiety can come and go: it may get worse at times, but that means it can also get better.
Nobody is born anxious, it’s a learned response. And remembering that it’s possible (if not easy) for them to eventually be free of anxiety can be very comforting when times are tough.
2) They may be tired and irritable
Being under prolonged stress is hard work, tiring and frustrating.
Anxiety creates the same kind of stress as an urgent work deadline, cramming for a school exam, or waiting to find out a diagnosis.
Except that they won’t always know what is causing it. Or when it will end.
So try and remember that they will often be “running on empty”, and make allowances for that when you are planning your time together.
Especially if they have been looking after children too.
3) They will avoid situations – but it’s not personal
People with anxiety will try to avoid situations they believe will trigger feelings of anxiety.
In fact, it’s something we all do, and it’s part of our survival mechanism. You see, normally, anxiety is our body’s way of telling us to pay attention to danger.
The heightened emotion we feel makes the memory stick in our subconscious mind, so we remember what to do (or avoid) next time.
The problem is that anxiety creates faulty beliefs.
For example, stress from a work deadline could “boil over” into a panic attack on a train, leading to the (incorrect) belief that being on a train is dangerous and to be avoided.
From that point on, the mere thought of going on a train can then be a trigger for anxiety.
The problem is that it is tough to change beliefs held in the subconscious mind without professional help.
Think about how difficult it is for someone else to change your mind about something you believe!!!
4) You can’t shame them out of anxiety
Fear is part of our survival mechanism, and it bypasses rational thought.
In many respects, anxiety is like having a phobia. You know in your rational mind that it doesn’t make sense and there is nothing to worry about, but the feelings of fear are very real.
Telling them they are stupid or that there’s nothing to worry about really doesn’t help… because they already know their behaviour is irrational and they usually already feel silly.
The fact is, you can’t “shame” someone out of anxiety – instead, help them to regain control of their emotions by rationalising their fears in a calm and non-confrontational way.
5) They sometimes just need to be heard
Because anxious people often feel silly, especially if they feel judged or a burden, they may be prone to bottling up their feelings until they have a full blown panic attack.
Often, just listening to their troubles can be just what they need to help their rational side take back control.
The trick is to do it without passing any judgment, or trying to solve their problems.
6) Asking if they are ok all the time is not a good idea
It’s a bit like asking a person on a diet if they are missing chocolate. It doesn’t help.
And the truth is, they are often not ok.
Instead, ask them how you can help… then respect what they say.
So if they ask you to talk with them, do that. If they ask you to leave them alone, do that.
Remember, anxiety comes in many flavours, and everyone has their own way of getting themselves over it. So let them do what’s best for them.
7) They really appreciate your support
Anxiety is difficult for everyone, and people with anxiety are often acutely aware that their condition means you are making sacrifices on their behalf.
In fact, their tendency to over-analyse means that they often feel guilty about the effect their condition is having on others, and this can itself be a source of anxiety.
All you can is try to mitigate that guilt – and know that they appreciate your support more than they could ever tell you.
8) People suffering from anxiety get stuck
As mentioned earlier, anxiety is supported by faulty beliefs.
But these are not any old beliefs, they are trigger beliefs set up in an atmosphere of fear or heightened emotion.
So when such a trigger is fired (even by thinking about it), their mind and body go to “red alert”.
In this “red alert” state, all their senses are heightened, and their brain starts over-thinking, trying to find any possible scenario that might be a threat.
And because we usually get what we focus on, this creates even more anxiety.
This cycle of fear and anxiety can make them feel trapped and stuck in an endless loop.
9) Change is especially difficult for them
Change is difficult for everyone, but even more so if you are anxious to start with.
People with anxiety tend to feel more comfortable when they’re allowed to be in their “safe zone”, where nothing significant changes. And anxiety, whilst painful, can be comfortingly familiar.
When they’re faced with big change and upheaval, they can be frozen with fear until they can establish that safe zone again.
Try to have a little more tolerance, patience and understanding for them. They are usually trying as hard as they can.
10) They have a lot on their minds
Sometimes they have difficulty focussing on you and your conversation.
Don’t worry, it is not intentional.
Their brain is just busy trying to figure out how to protect them from some perceived “danger” (whatever that is).
Imagine trying to hold a conversation whilst a tiger is approaching from behind. The chances are that you would find it almost impossible to concentrate.
Well, it’s the same for people experiencing anxiety. It’s all they can focus on. When we are in panic mode, the primeval part of the brain takes command, and the conscious (analytical) part of the mind hardly gets a look in.
11) They don’t want to feel this way
Though it might sometimes come across as attention-seeking, nitpicking or aloofness, most anxiety sufferers wish they could wave a magic wand and stop feeling that way.
They just don’t know how.
And even if they do have coping strategies, they are often too exhausted and worn down to use them all the time.
(That’s where professional hypnotherapy can make all the difference, as it tackles the problem at the root, rather than just teaching coping strategies)
12) Remember, anxious people may see things differently
That can be a positive, as well as a negative outcome.
For example, people with anxiety learn how to battle adversity and use their inner resources to cope with overwhelming fear. Some would say that their anxiety has helped them to become a stronger, more resourceful person.
Especially when they get rid of their anxiety and move on to a more relaxed life.
Always remember, people suffering from anxiety are human too. They share many of your hopes, fears and expectations. Anxiety is simply a transitory state, it does not have to be permanent.
They can fix this problem.
It may take some time and some help, but once they have, often they come out stronger than ever.
Remember these tips and give them love and support in their fight against feeling afraid.
And if they are open to the idea of using professional hypnotherapy to beat anxiety, I’ll be more than happy to help.