There’s a humongous amount of articles out there about how to cope with anxiety, for those who suffer with it. But what about the people who are around anxiety sufferers, and have to deal with the stressful responsibility of trying to be there for them? How can you truly help someone with anxiety, and not get too affected by it yourself?
The fact is, you can’t be there for someone who has anxiety if you are getting too stressed yourself. In order to help them, you also have to care for yourself. Too many people suffer in silence, trying to help a loved one, but having no idea what to do, and eventually they might find themselves developing anxiety too.
Us anxiety sufferers do know how hard it is to deal with us, we wish we could be better so that we don’t make other people’s lives a misery. It’s really frustrating because over time you see the impact your high stress levels and panic attacks have on those around you, such as a partner or family member.
Even your friends get the brunt of your anxiety occasionally too. So I want to write this article both for anxiety sufferers, who want to help those who are trying to support them, and people who are constantly around someone with anxiety, and feel like a weight is crushing down on them.
There are articles out there that can help, for example Anxiety UK offer the Caregiver’s Guide to Anxiety, but you have to pay for it! Although to be fair, I guess that’s £3.99 well spent.
I haven’t read this guide, but in general, I find some of the guides out there a tad generic.The advice they give on this page doesn’t really cut it in my opinion. They don’t really capture the rawness of dealing with someone with anxiety. So here are some of my personal tips from my experiences with my boyfriend, friends and family.
Don’t expect quick improvements, progress is often slow
Their anxiety won’t improve overnight, so don’t put pressure on them to get better. A lot of people think that if people take steps to helping their anxiety problems, it will just go away.
You should know from the start that it’s going to be a long haul. The last thing they need is someone saying, ‘shouldn’t you be better by now’, or ‘why isn’t your treatment working’.
Anxiety can’t really be ‘cured’, but it can be managed
Again, similar to the above point, but something extra to note. The person you are trying to help may never be ‘cured’ of anxiety. It doesn’t just go away, it’s managed. They might improve and seem completely back to normal, but that doesn’t mean they won’t have setbacks in the future. Sometimes the pressure to remain ‘better’ can make people worse again, because they feel like they should be stronger than they are.
Try not to react when you know they’re anxious
From personal experience, it really helps if the person you are with doesn’t react when you are anxious. Anxious people will lash out and say things they don’t mean. They will say things that seem a little crazy and irrational. Try, as much as you possibly can not to let these things get to you if you know they are very anxious or about to have an anxiety attack.
If they say something that really upsets you, obviously that’s not OK. However, instead of bringing it up in the moment when things can escalate and their anxiety will only get worse, save it for later. Wait until they have calmed down, and then gently explain that what they said hurt or annoyed you.
The absolute worst thing you can do is get mad at them and enter into an argument. Some of my anxiety attacks have only gone into full swing because of the way another person has reacted. Knowing they are mad at me makes me start to think they hate me, and I go into a downward spiral. When you feel anxious, a little love and support goes a long way.
Don’t put them in situations which will trigger anxiety
There’s a technique that can help people to cope better in situations that make them anxious. It’s a bit like desensitisation, but in very, very small doses. Don’t assume throwing someone in the deep end will help them to face a situation, as this could make things a whole lot worse. Think baby steps. For example, if they can’t cope with going for a drink in a cafe, head out into town and get them to walk past the cafe, and then maybe go in and order a takeaway drink.
Living with someone who has anxiety takes a bit of planning and organisation. Before you plan anything, try and think ahead whether you will be putting them in a situation that might make their anxiety worse. If you have to adapt your plans for a while, do so, until they get to a point where they can cope better.
If you are suffering yourself, get help
You most certainly can’t help a loved one with their anxiety if you are suffering yourself. Years of living with someone with anxiety can really take their toll. The frustration builds up and you feel like at any point you might burst. Don’t be stubborn and try and stay strong for the other person, as even though you have good intentions, you will eventually make things worse for them.
The last thing someone suffering with anxiety wants to see is their anxiety slowly destroying those they love too. When you know how bad it is yourself, you don’t wish it upon anyone, and feel really guilty if your behaviour is stressing someone else.
So, if you notice that you are suffering, even if it’s just a tiny bit, get help. Speak to a therapist, find others in the same situation as you, and get help from anxiety websites. You can also call one of the helplines and simply talk to someone.
Don’t neglect your own mental health
Do all you can to keep yourself mentally healthy and sane. Don’t stop doing the things you love because of the other person’s anxiety. Set boundaries of what you need from the relationship/friendship so that you can continue to be your best self. If you aren’t feeling yourself you won’t be in a position to help anyone else, at least not to your full potential.
Learn as much as you can about their anxiety
One of the main reasons carers struggle with looking after someone who has anxiety is because they just don’t understand it. You may never truly understand what it feels like to have anxiety, or why the person you care about acts in a certain way, but you can educate yourself. The more you know about anxiety in general, the better.
Also, if you can, go one step further and learn about their anxiety specifically, because anxiety is different for everyone. If they are up to it, ask them questions about their triggers, situations they want to avoid and things you should or shouldn’t do around them. This can really help to make both your lives more pleasant.
Don’t get disheartened when it feels like you’re not helping
Sometimes, you just need to accept, that no matter what you do, you can’t help the person you care about. You may momentarily make them feel better, which definitely helps, but that doesn’t mean they won’t start to feel worse again. Don’t beat yourself up about not being able to help or having an impact, and don’t mention that you feel like this either or get upset about it in front of them.
Suggest ways they can get help
If their anxiety is getting really bad to the point where it’s starting to interfere with their daily life, you might want to gently encourage them to get help. Don’t force them or say, ‘I think you clearly need help’, as this will annoy them and panic them. Simply put some suggestions forward, such as online forums, online counselling and therapy, going to see a counselor or visiting their GP.
Figure out what helps calm them down
Be aware of what’s going on when they are anxious, and how they react to certain things. You are the best person to notice what calms them down, as they may not notice the changes themselves. If you know what seems to really work for them, then you can suggest these things when they are feeling bad.
Don’t criticise irrational behaviour
When you have a panic attack it feels like you are losing your mind. Or even if you are just feeling stressed and worried, you can end up saying irrational and silly things. The last thing you need when you feel like this is someone pointing out your craziness. You’re better off encouraging positive actions, behaviour and progress rather than criticising them in any way.
In summary, don’t put pressure on yourself to be some kind of mental health superhero. You are not an expert, you might not fully understand, but the fact is, you are showing your support. All someone who has anxiety really needs from you is for you to be there, to show them love, compassion and patience during their times of need.
I hope you find this post useful. I would like to thank my boyfriend for putting up with me and being so utterly brilliant and supportive (nearly all the time) when I’m feeling anxious.
William, you’re the best. It’s not the superficial things that define love, but how you lean on each other in your darkest times. There’s times when he helps me and I think yes, this is the man I want to look after me, and spend the rest of my life with (soz, a bit soppy which is unlike me, but writing this post has brought out the softy in me).