Seeking help with anxiety has long been associated with social stigma, and if you’re here, chances are you might be finding ways to support your loved one.
However, before understanding how to help someone with anxiety, you must comprehend anxiety first.
Anxiety, the most common mental health concern, affects 18.1% of the U.S. adult population yearly (1).
In today’s day and time, you will see every one out of five individuals complaining of anxiety. While a certain level of anxiety is beneficial, its prolonged persistence is life-threatening.
Anxiety is more appropriately defined as a condition that shows up when you’re fearful of the future, regretful of the past, and extremely nervous and unsure about the reality of the present. It can happen to anyone regardless of age, gender, socioeconomic status, occupation, etc.
An anxious person may perceive things differently due to their overwhelmingly negative thought process, making them difficult to tolerate.
You might have had a friend who would constantly call himself worthless and refuse to understand otherwise; or, a colleague who is always on time, complies with deadlines, performs extraordinarily yet is always fearful of criticism (high functioning anxiety); or a significant other who upon the slightest trigger ends up having panic attacks out of the blue.
While witnessing a loved one enduring such pain is heart-rending, experiencing anxiety is even more agonizing. On top of that, the stigma associated with anxiety is no less than the stigma around other mental illnesses (2).
People often assume it to be an illness of the weak and mistreat the patient to the extent that he/she becomes suicidal or contracts other severe mental illnesses.
In such scenarios, having a loved one who takes care of the patient appropriately is what the patient needs the most.
However, sometimes helping someone with an anxiety disorder becomes equally distressing for the caregiver. Building healthy boundaries is significant to avoid triggering your anxiety, which may bring even worse consequences.
If you are struggling to help someone with anxiety, be mindful of the following before offering a helping hand to ensure successful outcomes.
Understand Anxiety Disorders and How It Feels
The first and foremost step to help someone with anxiety is to understand the condition well enough to distinguish between many forms of anxiety and help accordingly. You can only help effectively when you know the ins and outs of anxiety disorders and how it feels to have one. Let’s quickly dive into the details you must know to help a loved one deal with anxiety.
Know the different kinds of Anxiety Disorders
Understanding different types of anxiety disorders is crucial in implementing appropriate coping strategies, as each manifests distinct signs. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (3), among several types of anxiety following are the most common:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) –
Individuals with GAD worry immoderately about everyday tasks most of the day for over six months. The extreme level of anxiety can jeopardize one’s social and work life to a great degree. GAD signs include disturbed sleep, wound-up, irritability, persistent fear, muscle tension, uncontrollable worry, and constant fatigue.
Panic Disorder –
Individuals living with panic disorder get panic attacks unexpectedly and frequently. Panic attacks happen suddenly and escalate quickly to their peak. People with such disorders often fear smothering, death resulting from an unfortunate event, and choking to death; other symptoms include a pounding heart, sweating, and trembling.
Phobia-Related Disorders –
It is an intense fear of encountering an untoward situation or object. Even though fearfulness is natural in healthy people, phobic individuals show irrational responses to fairly ordinary situations.
They worry about coming across an undesirable event, and upon confrontation, they become immensely anxious and nervous. Unlike other kinds of anxiety, phobic people actively move to avoid the triggers.
Simple Phobias –
It includes fear of heights, animals, insects, clowns, confined spaces, etc.
Social Phobia –
It may sometimes be called social anxiety disorder, a condition when a person is over-conscious of others’ opinions about him/her.
It is an extreme fear of being trapped in enclosed areas, public transportation, a crowd, a queue, or even open spaces.
Separation Anxiety Disorder –
It is a fear of being separated from a loved one. People with SAD are so fearful of being apart from the attachment figures that they frequently have nightmares of being separated from them.
Difference between regular stress and anxiety
Another essential thing to understand while helping a loved one overcome anxiety is that they are not going through a common stressful situation. Friends and family often misdiagnose anxiety as regular stress, which is related to a particular stressor and goes away as soon as the stressor leaves.
On the other hand, anxiety persists even in the absence of stressors, and the individual keeps creating hurtful scenarios in his/her mind. (4)
A person with anxiety doesn’t want to live with it
It’s a widely believed misconception about people with anxiety that they like being this way. As a result, most people who could become a strong social support for the sufferer back off and cause more misery.
But the myth buster is, anxious individuals are equally irritated by their uncontrollable illness and need your help to get over it.
A Redditor explains her anxiety like this:
“I don’t want to live in fear like this anymore, but I don’t know what to do. All of my options require that I risk being triggered; when that happens, I struggle to concentrate and feel physically ill, making it almost impossible to accomplish the task at hand. Even typing out this post is taking me upwards of an hour.” (5)
Disrupted thought patterns need to be understood carefully
A person with anxiety has disrupted thought patterns owing to his illness. A caregiver needs to realize that anxiety brings about such thinking traps.
These thinking traps include over-generalizing a situation or a person, jumping to extreme conclusions, being inconsiderate of possible positivity, and exaggerating (6–7).
Why do they love being isolated?
People with a social anxiety disorder or anxiety, in general, are often criticized for not taking part in social events and are wrongly judged as being self-centered.
People with anxiety don’t dislike people; they are just uncomfortable surrounded by them because they fear disappointing them with their absurdity (that’s what they think) (8).
Are they over-sensitive?
Another stigma related to anxiety is deeming an anxious person over-sensitive rather than acknowledging his/her mental illness. Highly sensitive people (HSPs) do not have any mental illness and can even outshine a non-HSP while sustaining their HSP trait (9).
Identify the Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety
Once you’ve acquired adequate knowledge about different anxiety disorders, you can distinguish the symptoms accordingly to help someone with anxiety.
Although the signs and symptoms vary from person to person, you can still identify any budding anxiety symptom at the earliest. The symptoms of anxiety can be divided into three categories explained below:
Psychological symptoms –
Include over-estimation, feeling of impending doom, insecurity, hopelessness, being over-judgmental, a continuous state of fear of something awful, etc.
Physical symptoms –
Including sweating, trembling, shivering, nightmares, pounding of heart, palpitations, tensed-up muscles, consistent fatigue, upset stomach, disrupted sleep and eating patterns, etc.
Behavioral symptoms –
Include dissociation from the outer world, avoiding triggering events, being indecisive and frequently second-guessing, urge to receive validation, etc. (10)
What to Do
After thoroughly understanding the signs and symptoms of anxiety in your loved one, the next step should be to help them get through. Following are a few tips to remember while helping someone overcome their anxiety.
Show your concern
You must show it through your actions if you genuinely care for someone. Little gestures of kindness can make your loved one feel secure and sound around you.
Understand that an anxious person’s biggest insecurity is losing their friends and family. They might need continual reassurance that you will stay.
Don’t feel irritated with that, and try to make them feel safe and secure around you, not with your words, but with a truthful display of compassion.
According to a study published in 2018, “Compassion had a great positive impact on the anxiety levels of breast cancer patients” (11)
Understand what helps them the most
Instead of trying new coping strategies every time, observing and tweaking your helping pattern is better. For instance, people with anxiety who are highly avoidant of attachments may repel moderate support but respond exceptionally well when strong support is provided (12). Study your loved one’s response patterns!
Pinpoint their anxiety-driven behaviors
If you’re a closer one and have the complete trust of the person suffering from anxiety, try pointing their odd behaviors out constructively. It helps them recognize the early signs of a potentially harmful trigger response and mend the thought process beforehand.
How to calm anxiety-driven fear
People with anxiety experience fear out of proportion; they overanalyze every situation and become anxious. While helping a loved one, you may encounter a condition where they are unreasonably anxious and dead sure of something catastrophic happening.
It is excruciating to see your loved one suffer like this when no amount of support is helping. However, you can still help them feel relaxed.
Suppose an exam is approaching, and their anxiety has trapped them in a catch-22 situation. Here you can break down big tasks into simple steps, tell them to accomplish each task and report to you.
Validate their feelings
Always remember, there is a reason they trust you, even enduring a personality disorder that doesn’t let them trust anyone else around. Validate what they feel and how they perceive things. Listen to their irrational judgments carefully without interruptions to make them feel worthy and heard.
With such a tempered thought process, the temptation to correct them instantly is understandable, but avoid that. Only rectify their tangled misconceptions with discussion later after they are done explaining their viewpoint.
Strike a discussion and present them with alternative support options. Help them learn self-coping strategies to fight their symptoms when they are short of physical support.
Educate them about the merits of exercise, meditation, self-help books, and support communities.
Exercise – be their exercise partner, make daily schedules, and stick to them.
Meditation – let them do it alone to help them construct a self-healing mechanism.
Reading – read self-help books together for an instant kick-start and discuss after finishing each chapter. Later on, please encourage them to read alone.
Support communities – there are plenty of online and offline support communities to motivate the sufferers of certain illnesses to push through.
Discourage unhealthy coping habits
An anxious individual might sometimes find an escape from overthinking through alcohol or substance abuse (15). If your loved one is involved in such destructive habits, you must get them to discontinue them as soon as possible.
Take them to support groups and rehabs for quick withdrawal. Be there for them in this phase as minimal negligence may throw them back into the abusive state.
Encourage them to seek professional help
Even though you see improvements in them due to your compassion, never let them rely entirely on social support. Urge them to visit a professional psychotherapist every once in a while for psychological evaluation.
Many patients with anxiety are good at avoiding their triggers and appear to be healing on the outside. Thus, attending psychotherapy sessions may unveil their triggers and help them heal.
Book appointments, accompany them to the clinic, and take sessions with them to accelerate their recovery.
Help yourself too
Helping someone you love to get through a mental illness is easier said than done. It becomes overwhelming at times, and you might feel exhausted and drained.
It is a proven fact that the tedious responsibility of a caregiver may take a toll on his/her health and result in anxiety and depression (13). Keep good care of your health and manage your loved one’s condition without burning out.
You are doing a commendable job by trying to help them, yet, it is impossible to eradicate a mental illness in a snap. Like in every situation, good things take time! It will take time for them to get completely free of this anxiety demon, and it will eventually end.
Don’t neglect yourself while caring for them; they need you, A Healthy You!
What Not to Do
Knowing ‘what not to do while trying to help someone with anxiety‘ is more important than knowing what to do. A few things are strongly discouraged while helping someone with anxiety.
Do not feed their avoidance
It is common for an anxious person to avoid peopling, and you may want to take charge of their lives with a mission to help them. However, this practice is not a helpful approach; in fact, it exacerbates their anxiety symptoms.
Imagine your loved one is avoiding a critical professional meeting, and you are facilitating their trigger avoidance by calling the meeting off.
What will happen eventually, besides a professional loss? Your loved one will now rely on you more to take charge of their decisions. Simultaneously, the avoidant behavior will not let them face their triggers or get over them.
As a supporter, your primary focus should be enabling sufferers to help themselves.
Do not disregard their feelings
Be extra careful with how you respond to their feelings. Caring for someone with extreme anxiety or panic disorders can be hectic, and you might feel frustrated.
It justifies all of your exhaustion until you start demeaning and disrespecting the feelings of your loved one out of your annoyance.
Not only will it wreck all your efforts, but it will also cause them more distress and make them feel abandoned.
Never do that!
Do not compel
It is okay to advise them occasionally to mend their thought patterns, face their triggers, and alleviate their fear, but you must avoid compulsion at all costs. Pushing too hard might cause exponentially worse outcomes, including panic attacks (14).
If otherwise, you can only help them decide for themselves and only with the implementation. Respect your loved ones and their mental state.
Know When to Seek Professional Help
Social support is excellent, but you must only seek proper treatment through professional help. No matter how well you’re taking care of the anxious, you still need to consult a well-versed psychotherapist who’d integrate his/her professional knowledge into practice for the patient’s good.
People with anxiety disorders struggle the most with their tempered thought processes, which keep them thinking and over-analyzing.
The most effective psychotherapeutic technique which is implemented to dampen the symptoms of anxiety is cognitive-behavioral therapy.
A professional therapist efficiently replaces negative/destructive thoughts with positive ones with the help of cognitive-behavioral therapy. Psychotherapists might also prescribe a few anti-anxiety medicines too if deemed necessary.