Anxiety can be so isolating and consuming for someone who suffers from it. About 40 million adults in the United States suffer from an anxiety disorder. There’s a big chance that someone you love is affected by it. You can’t fix or cure anxiety, but you can learn how to live a happy and fulfilling life with it. Loving someone with anxiety is hard, and sometimes it takes trial and error to figure out what will be helpful. These are some do’s and don’ts for being an effective support person for your partner, friend, or family member.
Don’t tell them that their worries and concerns don’t make any sense or are irrational. And especially don’t tell them to “calm down”. If it was that easy for the brain to turn off by saying “calm down”, I would be out of a job as a therapist! Chances are, that your loved one already knows that their worry is irrational. But anxiety is like an invisible monster that whispers doubt and fear into your ear even when your brain tells you that it isn’t true. Anxiety isn’t rational or logical. Telling them that they are being irrational wouldn’t help, and it would only make them feel worse about themselves for thinking this way.
Do validate their concerns. Say, “I’m sorry you are so worried about this, and we can get through it together”. Let them know that you are there for them no matter the outcome. You don’t even need to have the solution, you simply need to listen.
Don’t be angry at your loved one. When emotions are high it can be easy to become enraged at whatever the situation is. It will be very easy to blame them for having anxiety without realizing it. Saying things like, “You always become upset when I…” or “You always make me have to reassure you…” attacks a person’s character. Becoming angry at them will only hurt their already low self-esteem.
Do express your feelings. You can absolutely be upset/angry at the situation. Notice that I said to be angry at the situation and not your loved one. It’s okay to say things like, “I wish I was able to attend this event with you” or “I feel upset that we keep miscommunicating”. Stick to sentences that start with “I”. This will help you be able to express your feelings without making them feel attacked.
Don’t ignore them when they’re being difficult or going down the rabbit hole of misery. When someone is experiencing a panic attack or is acting uncontrollable, it could be hard to know whether or not you should engage. Trust me, if they can make their anxiety go away they would. So just walking away or ignoring would just make them feel more isolated.
Do ask for what they need at the moment. It’s very easy for us to jump into problem-solving mode. Sometimes it’s best to ask the person themselves what they need at the moment. It could be as simple as a hug until the panic goes away, or perhaps a walk around the block.
Don’t take it personally when they are triggered. Sometimes you might think you said something or did something that triggered them (you might have), but it isn’t about you directly. They are feeling overwhelmed and not in control. Anxiety often comes in waves and sometimes it has already been building up so a small statement could trigger the wave to smack them right in the face.
Do offer to reduce their symptoms. Perhaps they need an escape. Have they been in an office all day and is stressed from work? Maybe they need to take a walk and get some fresh air, go out for dinner, or listen to you talk about how your day went instead.
Everyone that I know who suffers from anxiety (including myself) feel tremendously grateful for others who are continuously supportive and patient. You might not agree with someone’s anxiety, their irrational fears/worries, but being patient with them is more helpful than anything. On a final note, not everything about anxiety is bad. If someone with anxiety loves you, they will be passionate and detail-oriented about how to love you. I’ve never made a decision that did not undergo a lot of thought and process. You might mention how tired you are, and the next day they might show up with tickets for a spa day. Or you could say under your breath that you really liked a pair of shoes that you saw, and they magically appear on your doorstep. You will always be someone that they think about and will be cared for like you never have been.