When someone that you love is diagnosed with clinical anxiety, it’s important to understand what that means. Often, it means forgetting everything that you know or have been told about anxiety. Being anxious is a normal feeling that people experience, however, an anxiety disorder is more than simply being anxious. Someone who doesn’t have an anxiety disorder can severely underestimate the power that anxiety can wield on those that do. An anxiety disorder means that your anxiety disrupts your day-to-day functioning, in lots of different areas. So your loved one can feel incapacitated by this struggle on a daily basis, not just when typical, stressful situations come up.
You know that time you had to give a speech to your class and your stomach was in knots? Imagine feeling that pretty consistently from just being around people. Or even feeling that way for no specific reason, and just having that “on edge” feeling tied to daily life. How motivated would you be to try new things, introduce yourself to people, or reach out to a friend?
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Ways to Help
Include them! It’s so important to provide patience and encouragement to those you love that suffer from anxiety. Just because they feel anxious about something, doesn’t mean they should be excluded. Inviting your friend or family member along to an experience or an outing, even when you are pretty sure they will say no, can go a long way in making them feel included. Letting them know that you’d love if they would participate, or that you’d love to have a certain experience with them may be the extra push that they need to try something new.
Anxiety is good at feeding itself. When the invites stop rolling in, it has a tendency to feed the lies and negative self-talk that perpetuated the anxiety to begin with.
Let them lead. Sometimes all it takes is some quality time to build up some courage. If you are patient with your friend and family member, there may come a point that they feel comfortable enough with you to take a risk – even a small one.
Encouragement! When those baby steps happen – an initiated conversation with a stranger? Anxiety didn’t keep them up all night? Setting a lofty goal? Those things are huge and should be encouraged and reminded.
Another bit about encouragement: once they have done something scary once, it’s ok to remind them that they’ve been successful before. Initiating a conversation with a stranger once is huge, but just because it happened once doesn’t mean it’s easy the next time. Having a reminder from a trusted friend that they are capable can be a catalyst for ongoing success.
Ways to Hinder
Getting frustrated. Yes, some of the things that your friend or family member worries about seem ridiculous and irrational. But pointing that out to them repeatedly will only feed their self-worth fears – “they’re right, I’m ridiculous. I’m horrible. I’m not smart.” Those kinds of words get thrown into the pit of anxiety, and can spin it all the way out of control.
Getting anxious yourself. Make sure that you are setting clear boundaries and aren’t allowing your loved one’s anxiety to make your decisions. If you want to introduce yourself to a group of people, then do so, even if your loved one doesn’t come with you. Seeing your successes could be helpful in the long run. If you want to take a risk, don’t let their anxiety tell you that it won’t work. If you notice that you are feeling anxious, taking a break to reset yourself is a perfectly healthy boundary to set.
Giving up. Unfortunately, because being around those with anxiety can become exhausting if good boundaries aren't set, many relationships are lost along the way. And even more unfortunately, those relationship losses are counted as proof that their anxiety is right. Instead of giving up, encouraging your loved one to seek help when it becomes too much to handle can be helpful. With the support of someone else, those with anxiety can experience real breakthroughs within a counseling relationship.
Bonus Holiday Tip!
If you are hosting a friend or relative that struggles with anxiety this holiday season, offer them a quiet place to gather their thoughts if necessary. A spare bedroom, den, or quiet space away from the crowd can help for them to recharge, and just offering that space can make them feel known and understood.
Brooke Williams, MA, LPC, is a counselor licensed to practice in South Carolina. She specializes in making relationships thrive – whether working on marriages, parenting, friendships, or conflict in the workplace. You can read more about her here.