Humans have a natural desire to want to help family members or loved ones who are going through a difficult time. You may be in one such situation with a friend who has anxiety, depression, or another mental health issue. There are some definite ways that you can be very supportive and helpful, but first, a caveat. Your natural inclination to reassure them and provide every possible assistance may not always be the right course of action. You might end up doing more harm than good with constant reassurances and never-ending offers of help. Even worse, when all this well-meaning support doesn’t produce any positive results, you might become frustrated and worn out.
Therefore, this article is a balanced discussion of some tactics which can be helpful to a friend or loved one suffering from an anxiety disorder, without reaching that point of diminishing return.
What is an anxiety disorder?
People with anxiety disorders frequently experience panic, fear, and other physical and mental symptoms as responses to certain situations. Some of the physical symptoms of anxiety attacks can be nearly indistinguishable from serious physical ailments like heart attacks.
The events which trigger these responses may seem like harmless and everyday occurrences to others, but to the anxiety sufferer, these occurrences are associated with negative events from their past or negative emotions. Eventually, the physical and mental reactions to these occurrences accumulate and become ingrained to the point where they become a major obstacle to living a healthy, normal life.
There are different types of anxiety disorders. These include specific phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder. Each disorder has its own set of symptoms, and each one will trigger specific sets of responses from the sufferer. One especially insidious aspect of anxiety is that it alters the chemistry of the brain and generates increasingly negative thinking. This blocks out positive thinking, and can cause anxiety to spiral out of control.
Social support is highly beneficial for someone who is suffering from anxiety. Along with proper medical attention, social support can help a person overcome distress and prevent anxiety in the future. The following tips can help focus your energy when it comes to being of assistance to your anxious friend.
Tip 1: Understand what they’re going through
There may be times when the behavior of a person with an anxiety disorder can put a serious strain on friendship, or on the affections of a loved one. Your friend’s anxiety will make him/her much more irritable, and prone to negative behaviors. Understand that none of these will be controllable by the sufferer.
These are the times when even greater understanding and forgiveness will be necessary. It can be very reassuring to let your friend know that you are not going to abandon them despite their negativity.
Keep in mind that anxiety disorders are due to faulty perspectives on life situations, but are also caused to chemical imbalances in the brain. In many cases, people suffering from anxiety disorders are aware that the fears they’re experiencing are unreasonable and unwarranted, but they are simply unable to alter their own responses. You need to understand that you won’t be able to help them overcome their fears through logic or careful verbal convincing alone.
Tip 2: Don’t bring up the anxiety disorder
Avoid bringing up the anxiety or the anxiety disorder if your friend doesn’t. If it’s something your friend wants to talk about, then have that conversation. It’s generally not a good idea to initiate the conversation yourself. In fact, you might trigger a panic attack in your friend by bringing up his/her anxiety disorder and having them think about it.
Tip 3: Be there for your friend
One of the best things you can do to help a friend or loved one with an anxiety disorder is to simply make yourself available for them as often as you can. Be willing to listen to their fears, even though you’re likely to hear the same fears repeatedly (within limits as discussed below). When you do hear those same expressions of anxiety or fear repeatedly, try to avoid being critical or judgmental. Judgement will tend to undermine the benefit of companionship. Research conducted by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) showed that the presence of a friend around someone with anxiety can reduce stress hormones (cortisol) in the brain. By contrast, the study also showed that when a person suffering from anxiety is left alone and feels disconnected, the presence of cortisol increases, and the symptoms of anxiety increase.
Being there for your friend can be even more effective if you help them take their mind off whatever is causing the anxiety. By distracting them, you can redirect their thought processes from the anxiety-producing thoughts. If your friend is continuously brooding over the same anxious thought, try changing the conversation or initiating a fun activity. The aim shouldn’t be to sit down everyday and listen to your friend spill their fears onto your lap. The ultimate aim is to do fun activities with them.
Tip 4: Set limits
Someone with anxiety will want to indulge in talking about their anxiety, or may try to pull you into participating in their self-destructive behaviors. While you may need to have conversations and be part of these behaviors in order to support your loved one with anxiety, it’s important to set clear and strong limits to how much you are willing to do this. This can be a hard thing to do, but setting limits is part of any genuine attempt to provide assistance to a friend with anxiety. Setting limits is challenging, requiring you to be extremely patient, to demonstrate real strength, and to show consistency in your efforts.
Many people’s natural inclination is to curtail reassurance and tolerance of disorder rituals in one, sudden blow. This is not what’s best for supporting someone with anxiety and is not likely to be an effective approach. Instead, try to decrease your participation in their disorder behaviors gradually. For example, instead of reassuring your loved one when they are stating their irrational anxiety, stay silent instead. Aim for 50% less response over a two-week period.
Your fortitude will be tested. In some cases, your loved one’s behavior will worsen before it starts to show improvement. This is a common reaction called an ‘extinction burst.’ In an extinction burst, someone who is used to having their behavior treated in a specific manner, suddenly finds that it’s being handled very differently from what they’re accustomed to. Recognizing that, the person with an anxiety disorder will try even harder to restore the original, more accustomed reaction, even to the point of specifically and repeatedly requesting it.
Stand firm against the indirect and direct pleas made by your loved one experiencing extinction burst. It’s important to prepare your loved one who has anxiety with this change by having a frank and direct conversation with them about what you are about to do. Make them aware them aware that your priority is to help and love them, and that by participating and validating their anxious thoughts, you are only perpetuating the harm being done by the anxiety. Something like “I love you, so I refuse to participate in this behavior because I know it is harmful to you in the long-run” Might be a good line to use.
Tip 5: Coaching and commitment
Coaching is the best thing a non-health professional can do to assist a friend with anxiety. Often, this involves helping the person practice their recommended therapy objectives provided by a health professional, or by serving as a partner in a prescribed self-help program.
To be an effective coach, you will have to be supportive without being tyrannical, and without criticizing or ridiculing. Keep in mind that your own behavior should serve as a model for your friend who’s trying to recover from the anxiety disorder.
Sometimes, a pact or promise between you and your loved one to show behavioral improvement can be very beneficial. This is best when formally written down, with very specific and attainable goals, as well as the actions that you will both commit to in order to reach these goals.
It’s also important that this plan is subject to time constraint to prevent procrastination. To make it even more definitive, specify contingencies for failure to meet behavioral objectives, such as having to do volunteer work or clean someone’s car. If both of you stick to the terms of this written contract, chances are good that your friend will experience real improvement in his/her behavior.
Tip 6: Don’t let yourself get burned out
This point is the most important of all. If you are really close to someone suffering from anxiety disorder, it might be your natural tendency to over-commit your time and energy to restoring them to good mental and physical health. But in doing so, there’s a very real danger that you might become exhausted by the effort yourself. This is bad for you and your loved one, who will lose a important member of their support system. Recognize what your own physical and emotional limitations are, and don’t exceed them – otherwise there might be two problems instead of one.
Tip 7: Give your friend Spire
Spire is a device which carefully tracks a person’s breathing pattern and sends them notifications when their bodies are entering a state of stress. The device has been very helpful for people looking to heal from anxiety disorders, including panic disorder and generalized anxiety. It helps raise upcoming anxiety to a person’s awareness so that they can take steps before the anxiety takes over. Spire is a great addition to any anxiety help plan and will help you help your loved one overcome his or her anxiety.
Anxiety is stressful for everyone, but not everyone is so lucky to have someone care enough to educate themselves on how to help them get over anxiety. The person suffering from anxiety in your life is already very lucky to have you. With these tips and a lot of love, you can be sure that your friend or loved one will once again be anxiety-free.
There is no substitute for professional help when it comes to dealing with a serious mental health problem. However, social support is also integral to long-term recovery. Use these tips to be a support person for your loved one.