Anxiety is tough, isn’t it? Not just for the people that have it, but for you – the person who has to stick with them – while they go through it. It’s emotionally taxing, it can be physically demanding, and of course mentally demanding most of the time.
Plans have to be changed because of the anxiety. Some situations have to be avoided at times. Planning has to be done more thoroughly. Emotional needs can change at any moment. It’s a lot to deal with and it can be hard to get into their head to understand what’s going on.
It’s understandably often confusing, so here’s 13 things to remember when loving someone with anxiety.
They are more than just their anxiety
No one likes to be defined by one attribute of themselves. If you really want to be supportive of someone with anxiety, remind them that you appreciate the person behind the it. Recognise that they are much more than just their anxiety.
It sounds like it would be common sense to say that, we don’t go around seeing people by just one attribute in most cases, but people tend to become blind-sighted by mental health issues. They are still a human being with all the complexities that we all have. It’s worth remembering that.
They can get tired easily
Anxiety is exhausting. It seems as though the only people who understand how tiring it can be are people who have anxiety themselves. It causes people to live in a hyper-tense state. They are always on alert, their mind is very rarely settled, and their body is always ready to fight or for flight. With this hypertension there comes fatigue. Situations that people who don’t have anxiety can just sail through are tiring for those with anxiety.
Ever had a stressful week at work, where each day you woke up thinking “wow, I really hope I can get a break soon”? That’s every day for an anxious person, and it’s tiring. Remember that next time you’re pressurising someone with anxiety to be more ‘productive.’
They can get overwhelmed easily
Tying into the previously mentioned hyper-tense state, they’re also easily overwhelmed because of it. They’re aware of everything going on around them. Every noise, every action, every smell, every light, every person, every object. For someone who’s in such a hyper-alert state a situation that doesn’t seem that overwhelming (e.g. the thought of more than a handful of people talking in a room) can cause their head to spin.
When trying to encourage someone with anxiety to go somewhere, remember that the stimuli you enjoy can be overwhelming for them. Try not to lock them into the situation. Make sure they know they can leave and are capable of doing so at any time.
They are well aware their anxiety is often irrational
Being aware of the irrationality doesn’t stop the thoughts from spinning. It doesn’t stop the thinking of all of different worst-case scenarios. If it was as easy as saying “okay, that’s irrational – no point worrying about it,” the majority of those suffering from anxiety wouldn’t have a problem with it anymore.
One of the worst things about anxiety is how aware of the irrationality they can be. Pointing out that it’s not rational, doesn’t help – they already know that. What they need is compassion, understanding, and support – they rarely need advice on how irrational and pointless their anxiety is (because that’s not even advice.)
They can communicate how they feel (you just have to actually listen)
Having anxiety doesn’t mean that they not capable of expressing or communicating. (Unless they’re panicking, in which case they probably can’t. Don’t try to get them to either!) They still like to talk and they still like to speak for themselves. They will tell you how they’re feeling.
Often when people think someone with anxiety, or any problem really, can’t or won’t communicate – it’s because they choose not to, and it’s usually because the other party was completely dismissive last time they opened up. So next time when you think they’re incapable of speaking for themselves, bite your tongue and give them the opportunity to actually speak. Then take the time to listen.
They don’t need someone constantly asking “are you okay?” while they’re panicking
When you see someone panicking and you’re aware they have anxiety, do you really need to ask “are you okay?”
You know the answer. Their heart is pounding a million miles an hour, their hands are clammy, their chest is tight, their limbs are vibrating from the adrenalin and their mind has just sunk into the limbic system’s ‘fight or flight’ response. Honestly? Part of them probably thinks they’re dying. So instead of asking “are you okay?” try something a little more helpful and constructive. Perhaps:
- “Remember your breathing”
- “Remember <insert whatever technique that has helped them before>”
- “Would you like help me to help you to somewhere quieter/safer/calmer?”
- “I’m here if you need me.” (At this point, you should leave them alone unless they ask)
- “You’re panicking, it won’t last. You’ve got past this before, you’ll get past it again”
But the key to all of this: If they ask you to leave them alone – leave them alone! They’re experienced at handling their anxiety; let them get through it however they see fit.
They appreciate you sticking by them
Anxiety is rough on everyone involved, and that means you too. They know that, they understand their irrationality; they understand you’ve not done some things you would’ve liked to because they couldn’t. They’re not oblivious to what it takes to support them.
If there’s one thing in common that you’ll find with everyone that has anxiety, it’s that they over think – they over think a lot. Part of this over thinking always comes back to the people that have supported them, always. Your support doesn’t go unmissed – no matter how subtle you may think it’s been.
They can find it hard to let it go
Part of anxiety is the constant over thinking, but to really understand it we need to understand where this over thinking stems from. Anyone faced with a traumatic incident in life, which most with anxiety have had more than their fair share of, the memory (if not properly dealt with) can end up stored in part of the limbic system of the brain which the mind uses to work out if we are at ‘risk.’
The memory is stored in a completely different way and area of the brain in comparison to an everyday memory that gets filed away. This causes the brain to react differently to the memory. The brain is actively trying to make links between the traumatic memory and the present situation it’s in (partly the cause of the hyper-tense state.)
When the brain is caught up in this cycle, letting go of things can be very difficult. When the brain is trained to remain in this cycle through prolonged anxiety, letting go of pretty much anything can be very difficult. People with anxiety can’t always just ‘let it go,’ their brain won’t let them, so please don’t give them a hard time about it.
They can find change difficult (even if it’s expected)
We all have a comfort zone, anxiety or not. Pushing it can be difficult for even the most well-adjusted person, so for those with anxiety it can be even harder. This is not to be confused with the thought that those with anxiety don’t like change or pushing their comfort zones, because they will most likely thrive once they’re actually in the process of doing so. They can just find it much more difficult to bring themselves to do so.
The one relief people with anxiety tend to get from their it is when they’re allowed to be in their comfort zone with nothing much changing around them. When they’re faced with a big change or uprooting, it can take them a lot longer to settle back down and establish that zone again. Try to have a bit more patience and understanding for them. They’re trying, they really are.
They aren’t (always) intentionally ignoring you
Part of managing anxiety is controlling the inner chatter that comes with it. Sometimes it can be a very attention-consuming act. The strangest things can set off obscure thought patterns for those with anxiety. If they suddenly drift out of the conversation, there’s a good chance they’re over thinking something that’s just been said or they’re trying to calm their thoughts down. Both take a lot of concentration.
They’re not ignoring you; or at least, not intentionally. They’re just trying to not have a mental breakdown right there in front of you. You don’t need to ask “are you okay?” and you especially don’t need to quiz them on what you just said. If it’s important, try gently bringing it back up when they seem more attentive.
Their mind can sometimes be a war zone. They’ll unexpectedly drop out of conversations and they’ll feel bad for doing so if they realise it. Reassure them that you understand and make sure they’ve fully taken in any important news you may have discussed, especially if it involves them taking some responsibility (maybe make a note of it too!)
They aren’t always present
As mentioned in the above point, they’re not always present in a conversation, but it’s not just conversation that can set off this reaction. Everyday events can cause all of us to get lost in contemplation at some point or another, but for those with anxiety almost everything can serve as a trigger. They’ll withdraw into the depths of their mind quite regularly and you’ll probably notice a vacancy in their face. Contrary to what romantic movies suggest, it’s not always a good idea to come up and spook them while they’re lost in thought (though sometimes it definitely can be!)
Gently nudge them back to reality regularly. Remind them where they are, what they’re doing (not literally, they’re anxious – they don’t have short term memory loss), and to appreciate it. They’ll greatly appreciate you doing so.
They don’t always see it as a limitation (nor should you!)
It’s alright to be an anxious person. Yes, it can be a struggle at times, but it’s not always a limitation. Anxiety has molded part of the person in question and ultimately has the potential of making them a better person. It can cause them to see the world differently and this can often be for the best. The symptoms can suck, the over thinking can suck, the missing out on certain events can suck, everything in life has the potential to suck. Just because it can doesn’t mean that those with anxiety choose to see it that way; at least, not all the time.
Remember that part of their personality is the anxiety. Remember that part of them, the compilation of life experiences that they are made of, is the anxiety. It can have some benefits as well, and many with anxiety (when getting ‘better’) choose to see them. You should too.
They are awesome!
Just like everybody else here on Earth, they’re awesome! (That’s why you love them, right?) It’s fairly easy to get focused on the doom and gloom of any situation, especially those concerning mental health, but part of overcoming them is remembering the awesomeness that came before and will come after the issue.
Choose to see the benefits. Choose to see the upside of the situation. Choose to see the awesomeness. If they can, so can you.
That’s the list of 13, done, finished. Keep them in mind and your whole experience might be a lot easier – then again, it might not. We’re human and unique. What works for one might not work for the other, but there is one thing that always works: loving compassion. If you take anything away from this article, let it be that everyone – especially those struggling – deserves loving compassion, so spread it around.