Understanding how anxiety works will allow you to better help loved ones without unnecessarily exacerbating their anxiety.
When I originally moved into my (now) spouse’s house in 2001, she refused to put my name in the answering machine greeting. Because of our significant age difference and same-sex relationship, she was naturally concerned about how her parents would react to my moving in, so she kept it a secret from them for a while. I was irritated that her anxiety was affecting me, even though I sympathized with her and her situation; I didn’t appreciate acting as if we had something to be ashamed of.
Situations like this are common when a loved one is suffering from anxiety. Your loved one may be so afraid that they avoid taking action, act carelessly, or act in ways that make you anxious. This may be a lover who repeatedly puts off important duties or talks, a friend who complains about being alone but refuses to date, or a boss who is constantly concerned about what might go wrong and make everyone unhappy. It’s difficult to see someone you care about struggle with anxiety, and it’s much worse when their anxiety exacerbates your own.
But what can you do to help folks who are worried?
You must first recognize that anxiety is a personality trait, not a flaw. Most people experience anxiety on occasion because it is a normally beneficial sensation that aids in spotting potential risks, makes us fear social rejection, and keeps us alert to deception. Although worrying may appear to be a defect, having some members of a society who are extra cautious and continually think what can go wrong might be beneficial.
However, people can develop anxiety-coping behaviors that exacerbate the disease. They overthink (worry about the past or the future), avoid circumstances that make them uncomfortable, and use coping methods (such as being highly careful at work to avoid feeling like an imposter) that briefly alleviate anxiety but ultimately exacerbate it. These coping strategies may alienate others, including yourself.
Even if it’s uncomfortable and irritating to see these individuals suffer, there are things you can do to help. Here are a few of the strategies I recommend in my book, The Anxiety Toolkit.
1. Recognize The Differences In Anxiety Symptoms
We are wired to respond to fear in one of three ways: fight, flight, or freeze. For many people, one of these reactions will predominate. My partner, for example, has a tendency to freeze and bury her head in the sand when confronted with events that cause her tension and anxiety. When I’m under pressure, I tend to lose my temper, get overly idealistic, or become dogmatic.
It’s easier to understand and sympathize with someone who is scared (or worried) and acting out by being unreasonable or defensive once you understand that anxiety is designed to put us in a state of threat awareness. Pay attention to how worry manifests in the person you care about to have a deeper understanding of their tendencies.
2. By Personalizing Your Help, You May Confirm Their Preferences And Attachment Style
Instead of presuming, ask someone what type of assistance they require! However, research has found that people with avoidant attachment styles (often those who have previously been rejected in relationships or caregiving) are more likely to respond positively to significant indications of actual, practical support. This can include aiding the worried person in breaking down work into manageable bits or going over specific alternatives for dealing with a difficult situation, such as how to respond to an upset email, while still maintaining their autonomy and independence.
Other people, especially those who are deeply connected or have a “preoccupied” attachment style, are more prone to require emotional assistance due to a fear of desertion or of their feelings being too overwhelming for others. These people respond positively to words emphasizing their team’s closeness, such as when a fan says, “This is tough, but we love each other, so we’ll get through it together.”
These are only generalizations, so you should tailor your support to what works best for you in your own situation. When you are incredibly close to someone, you can help them by being acutely aware of their anxiety patterns.
3. Use Any Knowledge They Have Of Your Topic To Your Advantage
you understand a loved one’s anxiety, you can help them recognize when their anxiety-driven patterns are evident. It helps me when my spouse notices that I’m annoyed or too fussy around her, or that I’m otherwise acting nervous about work. We can recognize one other’s habits since we are so familiar with each other’s routines and our connection is reliable. Even if it isn’t always met with grace, the message gets through.
were you going to do this, you should get their permission first. Even those who are conscious of their anxiety may feel pressured to “give in” to their anxious thoughts. A person suffering from health anxiety, for example, may intellectually understand that arranging numerous tests at the doctor’s office every week is unnecessary, but they are helpless to stop themselves. If your loved one is having problems comprehending their anxiety or controlling compulsions, encourage them to visit a professional psychologist who specializes in treating anxiety.
4. Encourage Someone Who Is Concerned To Think More Clearly
You’ll be a more effective support person if you learn about cognitive-behavioral theories of anxiety, which you can do by reading or going to therapy with your loved one. Instead, you may try these approaches that have been shown to be useful for people who suffer from anxiety.
When people are worried, they frequently imagine the worst-case scenario. You can use a cognitive therapy method in which you ask them to consider the following three questions to help them gain perspective:
- What’s the worst that could happen?
- What is the best case scenario?
- Which is more likely or realistic?
loved one is concerned because they expected to hear from their parents hours ago but haven’t, you can tell them to consider the worst, best, and most likely scenarios for why contact hasn’t occurred.
Be careful not to reassure your loved one too forcefully that their fears will not be realized. It is more advantageous to emphasize their coping abilities. If they’re worried about having a panic attack while flying, tell them, “That would be incredibly uncomfortable and scary, but you’d manage with it.” Furthermore, if your loved one is concerned that someone else is sad or disappointed in them, it can be good to explain them that you can never completely control other people’s reactions.
5. Provide Aid But Do Not Take Command
Because avoidance is a core element of anxiety, we may feel driven to “help out” by taking care of our avoidant loved ones, thus encouraging their avoidance. For example, if you have to call your worried roommate because they find it so unpleasant, they will never overcome their aversion.
Support, defined as everything short of actually doing it yourself, is a valuable general concept to keep in mind. Support does not imply doing things for others. For example, if your loved one makes the appointment, you can volunteer to accompany them to the first treatment session. If they’re confused how to choose a therapist, you can offer some suggestions but let them make the final decision.
This guideline may not apply if someone’s anxiety is accompanied by severe depression. If they can’t get out of bed, they can be so shut down that they need emergency help to survive. Furthermore, family members suffering from anxiety disorders may fall into pure survival mode and require more direct assistance to execute duties. In less urgent situations, though, it is preferable to provide aid without dominating or over-reassuring.
6. Avoid Stigmatizing Someone Who Has A Severe Anxiety Illness
What can we do to assist folks who are dealing with more significant issues? People suffering from panic disorder, anxiety and depression coupled, post-traumatic stress disorder, or obsessive thinking (particularly thoughts related with eating disorders) may believe they are going insane. It may appear that assisting them is impossible.
have You still various ways to show your support. When someone is anxious, reassure them that your general view of them has not changed. They are still the same person; they are merely experiencing a temporary problem that has gotten out of hand. They are unharmed and remain the same person. You can help the person maintain a connection to their positive facets of themselves by participating in or supporting their interests and activities.
Chronically worried persons sometimes exhibit little willingness to change. If you or someone you know suffers from an eating problem or agoraphobia, their sickness is most likely stable and long-term. In these cases, you can be welcoming of that person so they don’t feel alone. The best way is typically to be honest about their inadequacies without shaming them or pressuring them to become “normal.”
7. Take Care Of Yourself As Well
Recognize that your goal is to help rather than heal or soothe the person’s concern. Check to see if you’re taking on too much responsibility, which is an indication of anxiety.
Remember that the focus of your assistance does not have to be solely on anxiety. For example, exercise is quite effective for lowering anxiety; therefore, you may simply suggest that you go for a walk or attend a yoga class together. It is also permissible to limit your assistance in some areas. A 20-minute stress-relieving talk while walking is far more likely to be useful (and less tiring) than a two-hour lengthy debate.
It’s not always easy to help someone who is anxious, and you could feel like you’re doing it wrong. However, reminding yourself that you and your loved one are both doing your best might help you maintain perspective. It is critical to maintain compassion and to remember to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. If you do this, you’ll be able to grasp what’s upsetting your frightened loved one and how you can genuinely help.