Anxiety can take over the lives of those who suffer from it, but it can do the same to their loved ones. How can you help your partner, friend, or family member with an anxiety disorder as a support person?
1. Do your part to understand anxiety
You should know, for instance, that:
- Anxiety is caused by a variety of genetic factors and life experiences. People who are naturally shy, have experienced a lot of stress or have suffered trauma, who have a family history of anxiety as well as other mental disorders, and who have physical medical conditions such as hypothyroid are all more likely to develop anxiety disorders.
- While all anxiety disorders share common symptoms, the exact feelings and fears your loved one experience will depend on the kind of anxiety they suffer from. Anxiety can induce fatigue, irritability, restlessness, and trouble concentrating — all things that are likely to impact loved ones, too. It can also cause muscle tension and trouble sleeping. People with phobias are going to find it extremely difficult to be in situations that involve their fear, whether that happens to be public spaces or heights.
- Anxiety is not their fault. They cannot just "snap out of it". If your friend with agoraphobia keeps avoiding meeting up, that doesn't mean they don't want to see you; it means they are afraid to go out. Being aware of this is important when it comes to preserving your relationship with a loved one who suffers from anxiety.
- Panic attacks, when can come on suddenly when someone with anxiety is confronted with a trigger, are very scary for the sufferer. Profuse sweating, trembling, and a rapid heartbeat are all part of the picture. Learn to recognize panic attacks quickly, and when one strikes, stay with your loved one. Stay calm and do not start panicking yourself, as this is likely to make things worse. Say calming things, and maybe breathe with them. Discuss the best way to help your loved one through a panic attack with them beforehand.
2. What kind of practical help can you provide to a loved one with anxiety?
If you want to know how you can make your loved one's life easier and be there for them through their anxiety, the best way to find out is usually asking the person themselves. Not everyone with anxiety has the same needs, and your place in supporting them will depend on your relationship with them, as well.
In general, however, it is important to encourage your loved one to seek medical attention if they are anxious and haven't done so yet. This step itself can be scary, but anxiety is treatable — usually with a combination of talk therapy and medications. Your friend, relative, or partner may be scared or embarrassed to talk to a doctor or therapist. You can play a role in encouraging them to take the plunge.
Do not make your loved one feel "crazy" for suffering from a very common mental ailment. Do not get angry or irritated when your loved one's anxiety gets in the way of doing something you were looking forward to together. But also don't enable negative coping behaviors by, for instance, agreeing with them when they are expressing unrealistic worries or doing their shopping so they don't have to leave the house. Do offer positive feedback if you see progress.
3. Look after your own needs, too
Is your loved one with anxiety someone very close to you, someone you live with? If so, their anxiety is also going to impact your own life. Caregiver burnout is a very real phenomenon. Experiencing it means you'll no longer be able to play a very effective role as a support person, but also that you now have your own issues to deal with. Try to prevent ending up in this trap by taking your personal needs very seriously.
If your partner or child suffers from anxiety, don't feel guilty about:
- Doing the things you love, even if you have to do them without your loved one.
- Looking after your basic needs.
- Feeling the need to discuss your struggles as a support person with others, and actually doing it. To protect your loved one's privacy, you can do this online anonymously without providing identifying details, and even better, attend talk therapy yourself.
Meeting your own needs enables you to be a better support person — but don't just do it for your loved one. You are important, too.