Relationships can be hard to maintain, but if the person you love suffers from anxiety, that can open a whole other world of challenges.
A 2014 YouGov survey carried out in the U.K during mental health awareness week found that almost 1 in 5 people felt anxious all of the time, or a lot of the time. Additionally, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S, affecting 40 million adults over 18.
Think about that. Forty million anxious people. If one person cares about each one of them, that means at least another 40 million people are in turn affected by that anxiety. You could probably double, trible or quadruple that number of course. Clearly anxiety is not a trivial condition.
If you are the person who loves or cares about an anxious person, you will know how important it is to listen and encourage them to get help to cope with their anxiety. At times though that might not be enough for you to be able to cope. Remembering these 14 things can help during the tough times.
1. They are not their anxiety.
Think of anxiety like a really bad head cold. It makes the sufferer unwell enough to not be firing on all cylinders, yet not quite ill enough to be able to stop their lives and seek medical attention. That’s a difficult condition to be in, and for you to deal with. One moment they seem fine and able to cope with the rigors of daily life, and then suddenly the ‘head cold’ has kicked in and everything is bleak. This can be exhausting, leaving you unsure what you can trust or rely on. That uncertainty can bleed into how you view and treat your loved one. Because they don’t seem so very ill, it’s hard to separate the illness from the personality. Remember the anxiety is not who they are as a person (anymore than a mucus-filled head and sandpaper throat is a picture of good physical health). So if they have an “episode” and you’re finding it hard to cope, imagine they are sneezing or blowing their nose vigorously. All you are seeing are the symptoms–not the person.
2. Their anxiety is not you.
People have a sponge-like quality. We gradually absorb things from those we spend time with. Just think how quickly kids pick up mannerisms from watching T.V.
If you spend a lot of time with an anxious person this fact can be good and not-so-good. The danger is that soaking up so much of their anxious behavior can affect how you feel. You might not notice it at first, but at some point you may begin to feel a small hairball of anxiety in your own throat and wonder where it came from. Don’t despair. This can be remedied by building your own mental blockade and reminding yourself of your core values. It can even help to tell yourself–out loud–that you are not an anxious person and that you won’t become one. This kind of self-affirmation can help to protect your mind and develop an immunity to infectious anxiety. See point six for more on this.
3. They may feel trapped in a maze.
Raising and discussing an anxious concern with you once or twice might not seem unreasonable, but if your loved one constantly wants to talk over the same kinds of worries, it can appear as though they are going mad. Often this happens because the sufferer feels as though they are trying to navigate a route out of a dangerous maze and they will not rest until every path has been explored. This is how a whole weekend can end up being consumed on a single topic. Keep in mind that they are trying to get out and don’t enjoy the repetition any more than you. If you both feel like you are working as a team you will resolve things far quicker.
4. Anxious people are often very nice people.
There is no doubt this is one of the many reasons you love the anxious person in your life. Many anxious people are ruled by a constant dread of hurting others. Being around them may help make you more sensitive to others or delicate situations. Even when they have a bad day, it’s important to remember all their unique qualities (e.g. kindness, quirkiness, good organization, thoughtfulness, cleanliness). Remember that the reason you are helping them manage their anxiety is because they don’t want something bad to happen to those they care about. It still might drive you crazy but checking the root source will help you see it comes from a very good place.
5. Don’t give in to frustration.
Sometimes anxiety can seem to define your relationship, to the point where your own feelings and routines are transgressed. Even though you might be doing all you think you can, it can still feel like you are being controlled. This feeling of being overwritten by the other person can make them seem selfish. This may well be a veneer, with the opposite holding true beneath their surface. It is a frustrating feeling and understandably that frustration might boil over in some (usually unpleasant) way. This venting of frustration will more than likely cause your loved one’s anxiety to increase, thus kicking off a vicious cycle that doesn’t need any more help self perpetuating. You shouldn’t be expected to keep a lid on your feelings either, so it is important to establish clear and fair boundaries.
6. To establish boundaries remember your ABCs.
A – Ask yourself what anxious behaviors or manifestations you can reasonably cope with and which you absolutely can’t.
B – Bring your loved one into a peaceful safe place where you are able to chat. Explain how you feel and then draw your lines in the sand. You are not trying to control them or their anxiety. You are simply stating a few areas where you are unwilling to be told what to do. That is your right and, when done in a calm setting, most anxious people will respond well as it gives their anxiety some boundaries to work within.
C – Choose the moment for this process wisely. Doing it when anxiety is raging, or during an argument, will not produce the same effect. (Surprisingly!)
7. Try not to interpret their anxiousness as a personal accusation.
Your loved one may be carrying around hundreds of worries in their head. Inevitably some (perhaps most) will find voice. Many are about typical things that everyone worries about–paying the mortgage, managing debts, health concerns, appointments, family worries, even worries about their relationship with you. When they verbalize these concerns, you may feel like you are suddenly under attack. You might hear, “You aren’t making enough money,” “You aren’t handling things well,” “You are irresponsible,” or some other unspeakable crime. Naturally the response when feeling attacked is to go on the defensive. There’s that super vicious cycle again. Very often, leveling accusations and apportioning blame is not the intent, so try to hear what’s really being said, and how it is being said.
8. Express how you feel truthfully.
If confrontation is not how you handle feeling judged, another trap to avoid is retreating within and closing up, welling resentment up inside you. Those feelings can create a cold, detached distance between you, which can be more damaging for a relationship than the initial anxiety was. Don’t be afraid to say how these thoughts are affecting you. It can be hard, but the chances are your loved one really don’t realize how their words are making you feel. Be truthful. Always. Saying you are fine when you are not will only damage you both.
9. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
Though they may be fragile at times, your loved one isn’t an idiot. Often the things they say will be valid observations or genuine concerns. The challenge is not making them feel that you don’t value what they say. They already know that they have a little of the “boy who cried wolf” in them. So when they say something of real concern and you disregard it (like you’ve had to with countless trivial concerns) they may feel crushed. It’s a tricky one, but try to look at their demeanor when they’re speaking–how do they seem? If another non-anxious person raised this with you, would you take them seriously? Are you not listening because you think it’s just anxiety or because you don’t like what you’re hearing? However you answer those questions, remember that open, honest, calm communication is just what the doctor ordered.
10. If they are open to it, try to help them understand their own anxiety.
“Anxiety is the giant lid we use over the pot of emotions,” explains Fiona Watson, Mickel therapist. “When our anxiety gets worse it can often mean there are more unresolved emotions in our pot.”
It is not your job to be anyone’s therapist but if the moment presents itself some well thought out questions may help them. “When did this feeling start?” “Who/What/Where makes it heighten?” Someone taking an interest in the way their mind is working might just start them on the road to understanding the root of their problem.
11. It’s not your job to fix them.
It’s not even possible for you to fix them! You can ask questions, be kind, love and support them, but ultimately this is a private battle they have with themselves. You are a cheerleader on the pitch. You cannot participate but you can certainly motivate. Their burdens are not yours to carry but be the best cheerleader you can be (they will adore you for it).
12. Deep breathing never fails.
If it’s all getting on top of you, remember to take some deep, long breaths (and encourage them to do the same). “Breathing in for 7 and out for 11 allows your nervous system to calm down,” says Laura McDonald, reflexologist. “If someone you love is really anxious, the best thing you can be in that moment is calm. Sensing your calmness will help them begin to relax.” So chill.
13. Try to have as much fun as possible.
It can feel like anxiety sucks all the life out of living. It can sometimes make spontaneity, travel, socializing, eating out, and other adventures very difficult and colorless. It is important that you not give in to those difficulties. You may have to adapt your plans and think outside the box, but the greatest gift you can give to the anxious person you love is to help them fight that blood-sucking anxiety. By giving them fun, happy memories to pepper the anxiety filled ones they naturally have, you can help them have more to aim for–more to hope for.
14. Your relationship can become ironclad.
If they do decide to get help fighting their anxiety, you will be a big part of their journey and that can only bring you closer. Remember: a little anxiety can be beneficial, as it motivates us to make wise choices in life. Work together with those you love and those who love you to find the right balance.