Everyone experiences anxiety as a part of everyday life and these feelings of unease and worry can motivate us in various ways, such as to work hard or stay safe. But there is a big difference between occasional and short-lived anxiety and an anxiety disorder. For people living with an anxiety disorder, these intense feelings rarely go away, anxiety attacks can be debilitating, and the anxiety may interfere with relationships, jobs and everyday tasks.
Anxiety is the most common mental health condition and it is on the rise. Perhaps surprisingly, one in four, or 25 per cent of Canadians will experience an anxiety disorder at some point. It can be very upsetting to watch a person you love face anxiety every day. If someone in your life has an anxiety disorder—or you suspect that they do—here are some ways you can offer your support:
Know the Symptoms
Helping someone with anxiety begins by understanding and identifying the signs and symptoms. Anxiety can be hard to diagnosis because symptoms develop slowly over time, and as we all experience some level of anxiety, it can be difficult to know when it becomes too much. People with an anxiety disorder don’t always recognize what is going on or may be worried about what others will think. So friends and family are often the first to acknowledge that a loved one may need help. Anxiety disorders vary in severity and look different for each person, but the following physical, psychological and behavioural symptoms are the most common:
• Shortness of breath
• Racing heart
• Hot and cold flashes
• Diarrhea, nausea or stomach pain
• Muscle aches and pains
• Excessive worrying
• Regular feelings of impending danger, panic or doom
• Trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than fears
• Distress and irritability in feared situations
• Avoiding things that cause anxiety altogether
• Compulsive actions (e.g. handwashing)
• Second-guessing actions
• Seeking constant reassurance
Support With Empathy
The things that are making your loved one anxious may not make sense to you. That is what can make anxiety so difficult and why there are no easy solutions. Dismissive comments like, ‘this isn’t a big deal,’ ‘calm down’ or ‘there’s nothing to be scared of,’ can make them feel ashamed and that their struggles aren’t valid. Likely, this is the direct opposite of what you’re trying to do. Instead, acknowledging that you can see that they are scared, that you are here for them and that you love them—even when you can’t relate—is a powerful way to show your support.
Listen Without Fixing
One of the best approaches to helping a loved one with anxiety is just to listen—especially if they are already getting professional help. When we see someone we care about suffering, it’s natural to want to offer solutions. Instead, practice staying quiet, let them speak and then summarize what they said without trying to solve things. Remember that if someone is confiding in you about their anxiety, it shows that they trust you enough to be vulnerable and that’s a big step forward.
Ask for Direction
It’s likely that your loved one already knows what makes their anxiety better or worse, so ask them. This can be especially helpful if the person with anxiety experiences regular panic attacks. Communicating in a panicked state can be impossible, but if you’ve talked about it beforehand and you know that helping them focus on their breathing or simply sitting beside them in silence helps them, then you’ll have the tools to make a difference.
Avoid Temporary Fixes or ‘Tough Love’
It can be tempting to try to change your behaviour, the environment, or take over tasks and activities that trigger your loved one’s anxiety. While well intentioned, this strategy doesn’t help to reduce or manage anxiety and actually sends a message that there is something to fear. However, it’s also not a good approach to force your loved one into an anxious situation, which can very distressing. Learning how to overcome deep fears is something that is done best by a professional therapist. As a family member or friend, be patient, encourage positive coping techniques and take things at a pace that your loved one will feel comfortable with.
Encourage Professional Help
If your loved one’s anxiety is affecting their daily life and you know that they aren’t getting the help that they need, it’s okay to tell them that you’re concerned. Pick a time and place where they’ll be the most comfortable, and when you speak to them, focus on how you’ve noticed their anxiety impacting daily life and the ways additional support may help them to cope. If they are open to getting help but seem overwhelmed, offer to do some research on treatment options or wait for them in the parking lot during their first appointment with a medical professional. And if there are any signs of suicidal behaviour, take them very seriously, act immediately and do not leave your loved one alone.
It can be really challenging to support someone with a mental illness and can leave you feeling overwhelmed, alone and exhausted. Remember to prioritize your own mental health and set limits so you will be in a better position to help others. You can’t take away or fix your loved one’s anxiety, but by trying your best to be open and compassionate you will help them find the support that they need—while doing your part to help change the culture around mental illness.