If only anxiety was the well-worn jacket that could be loosened and thrown to the floor like an unwanted thing when someone was feeling warm enough, brave enough, sure enough and ready enough. People with anxiety are all of these things, but anxiety is persuasive and has a way of convincing the strongest mind otherwise.
An anxious mind is one that is strong and determined. Strength can give all of us the push from behind to move fiercely and fully into the world, or it can hold on, bear hug style, and make it hard to move, hard to think and hard to breathe. Anxiety does a lot of the latter. It has a way of making everything hard – even the feel-good things we humans were made for, like love and friendship.
How to help with anxiety.
If you know someone with anxiety, it is likely that you will have experienced their beauty and richness first hand. They are the artists, the thinkers, the leaders, the musicians and the entrepreneurs. They are the ones who think of things that nobody else has, and the ones who can see the world in ways that are exciting, original and life-giving. They will move you, care about you and be there for you. The world will always work better because of them than it would without them.
Anxiety also has a way of making everyone feel helpless – those who are struggling with anxiety directly, and those who would do anything to help, if only they knew what that ‘anything’ was.
Here are some ways to support someone close to you through anxiety, that will make you seem as though you’re made of sunlight and beautiful things, with a little bit of magic thrown in. Not all of them will necessarily be relevant to your important person (and some will be important for all of us – anxiety or no anxiety). If you’re in doubt, ask them – it will mean a lot to know that you’re thinking about it.
Know that you don’t have to fix anything.
One of the most supportive things you can do is to be there – strong, steady and available. You don’t need to fix anything. Nothing is broken. Anxiety feels awful, but it is a strong response from an overprotective brain, not a broken one. You don’t have to fight their anxiety for them. They know if you would if you could, and that’s why they love you.
Write this down …
Telling someone with anxiety to ‘just get over it’, or that there’s no need to worry, is useless and will only feed into bad feelings, (‘I know there’s nothing to worry about – so why do I feel like this?!’). They would have told themselves to stop worrying a billion times before – probably a billion times today before breakfast – and it doesn’t land any differently when it comes from someone else. Anxiety isn’t a choice. It’s an instinctive fight or flight response from a brain that thinks there’s trouble. In the battle of you versus their anxious brain, the brain will win. It’s had thousands of years more practice at running the argument that there is something to worry about, than you have at saying there isn’t. Anxiety is physical. Telling someone with anxiety to stop worrying will work as well as telling as asthmatic to start breathing. There are other things that can soothe anxiety, but just telling it to stop isn’t one of them.
Don’t try to change them.
We all have things about us that we would rather change, but often, if you were to wipe out those things, you would be wiping out the strengths that come with them. We are all a rich, messy, glorious combination of the beauty and the flaws that make us perfectly imperfect. People with anxiety have so many strengths. See through the anxiety and don’t try to change who they are. Of course if you could, you would take away their anxiety and put it in a place where it would never hurt them again, but you can’t. What you can do is love them for who they are, as they are, and remind them that with them is one of your favourite places to be.
It’s no big deal. Let them know.
When anxiety takes hold, it can feel as though there is a barrier in the way that’s the size of the average volcano. This can put a bump in the road that wasn’t expected. That bump might look like avoidance, a need to escape, or a last minute change of plans. This can be frustrating and annoying for you – they know that – but it will always be monumentally more so for them. They will always hate knowing that they’ve disappointed you – what you think and feel will always matter to them – but that avoidance or last-minute change of plans will feel like the only way out of the frightening feelings that come with anxiety. If you can respond to this as ‘no big deal’ they’ll probably want to make a tv show about you, or maybe they’ll just say thanks, but either way they’ll be thinking you’re kind of wonderful for making the exit an easy one. Just be careful not to overdo it, speaking of which …
Supporting the person or supporting their anxiety? Know where the line is.
This is a hard one. When you are close to someone with anxiety, it can be easy to fall into the trap of doing things – too much – that seem to support them, but that actually feed their anxiety. This can be things like supporting the cancelling of plans at the last minute, always responding instantly to texts (lovely, but not always possible), staying on the outside of the fun at social get-togethers, staying with the familiar (restaurants, holidays etc). As much as your agreement to these might come from a place of love, they can eventually cause discontent in the relationship or friendship when they become habits or expected. They can also feed into the anxiety by reinforcing the message that the only way to feel safe is to keep doing things the way they’ve always been done.
Sometimes these responses are exactly what’s needed, but if it’s causing trouble for you, your relationship, or the one you care about, it’s probably time to talk about what can change. The most important thing is not to change things suddenly, and never without talking about it first. Surprises that feel bad will provoke anxiety like nothing else. Be supportive and understanding of why things have been done the way they have been, and then talk about what you need to be different. Be loving and gentle and let the person know you’re there for them, ‘I adore you, you know I do, but we pull out of things at the last minute a lot. I understand that sometimes this feels important for you, but when it happens too much it’s not good for either of us. Can we talk about how to do things a little differently?’
Learn as much as you can about anxiety.
Because anxiety often comes without visible signs, and because we all experience it on some level, it can be easy to write anxiety off as an ‘overreaction’. It’s not. It’s a physical reaction. It’s like saying that getting puffed and sweaty when you run is an overreaction to physical activity. The more you can understand anxiety, the more you will be able to respond in a way that is strengthening and supportive. The stronger and more supported people feel, the better they are for themselves and those around them. (That means they’ll be better for you.)
Know their warning signs.
Anxiety doesn’t always announce its presence with neon lights. Pity. The signs might be avoidance, procrastination, making excuses to escape, indecisiveness, becoming stressed or angry, or perhaps something completely different. Learning the signs that your loved one is feeling anxious will make it easier for you to respond, whether it’s by being beside them as they move forward into ‘battle’, or helping them make a hasty and fuss-free exit.
Know what sets their anxiety soaring.
Be sensitive to their triggers. We all have things that rub against us, but when those triggers bring on anxiety, they can be important ones to sidestep if you can (and you might not always be able to). If, for example, you know they would rather take their chances in a shark tank than in a room full of unfamiliar people, don’t have a table set for fifteen when you invite them to an intimate dinner for four. It doesn’t mean you have to buckle to every need, but if you can be sensitive to the important ones, everyone wins.
Sometimes, be brave enough for both of you.
Anxiety and courage always exist together, and people with anxiety will be amongst of the bravest people you’ll meet. Anxiety brings people right to the edges of their limits, and people with anxiety push through those limits every day. It’s exhausting and sometimes, understandably, they will be tempted to step back when it’s important to step forward. If you can pick up on these times and help them to see themselves as you do – capable, resilient, strong – you can help them to reach into the world when they need to. This isn’t always easy, which is why you’ll need to be brave enough for both of you.
Walk with me.
Physical activity is the natural end to the fight or flight response, so if someone is in the thick of anxiety, invite them for a walk outside, or anywhere away from the trouble zone. The physical activity will burn the fight or flight neurochemicals that cause anxiety’s physical symptoms (racing heart, nausea, butterflies, clamminess, muscle tension). When this happens, the awful feelings that come with anxiety will start to disappear.
Buy them a colouring book. Yes. Really. Let me explain.
A ton of research has proven that mindfulness is brilliant for anxiety. There are plenty of ways to practice mindfulness, and colouring in the intricate designs in a mindfulness colouring book is one of them. Mindfulness changes the brain by strengthening the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that calms down fear) and decreasing the size of the amygdala (the trigger centre for the fight or flight response). It also decreases cortisol (the stress hormone) and increases the neurochemicals (gamma-aminobutyric acid [GABA]) that calm down brain cells when they get overexcited.
Be an ‘om’ buddy.
Exercise and meditation are brilliant for anxiety. Yoga combines both. Even better when it comes with a fabulous friend in an even more fabulous cheesy motivational t-shirt.
Bring it back to now.
Anxiety is driven by a mind that is focussed on the future. The future can be a fun place to hang out sometimes, but it’s also the breeding ground for the ‘what-ifs’ that flourish anxiety. When someone is in the grip of anxiety, encourage that future-thinking mind back to the present. Work through each of the senses: ‘Tell me five things you can see.’ ‘Tell me four things you can feel.’ ‘Tell me three things you can hear.’ ‘Tell me two things you can smell.’ In between, remind your friend to breathe in for three, hold for one, out for three if they can. Breathing strong deep breaths is difficult to do when anxiety is at full throttle – the brain is busy with other things, but with every ‘tell me …’, it should get easier. Breathing will trigger the relaxation response, which will neutralise the neurochemicals that have driven the physical symptoms. If you can’t be there in person, technology has it sorted – try giving your guidance over the phone or through text.
Oh for the love of details!
Few thing can set anxiety racing more than gaps or sketchy information. One of the things that make people with anxiety great to have in your tribe is the way they are always prepared for the plan b, plan c, plan d – and every other letter of the alphabet. They’ll think of things that nobody else would have thought of. The part you don’t see (or if you’ve been beside them at 2am, maybe you have seen it), is the way they will think about a situation from every angle. Help out with this by giving as many details as you can – start and finish times, where it is, who will be there, how long it will go for, what it will look like when you get there – and don’t make them wait for it if you don’t need to. No such thing as too much info .
They’re going to jump to conclusions. Give plenty of info so they don’t end up at the wrong place.
With a threat sensor on high alert, you might sometimes find that you are read the wrong way. People with anxiety are generally really sensitive about what other people are thinking or feeling. This is such a strength. For the most part, they’ll be spot on, but sometimes they might get it wrong. (Can’t we all!) Tired, frustrated or confused might be read as ‘angry’, or, ‘angry with me’. Be alive to this and clear things up when the need is there. If you’re angry, they will be able to spot it through the eye of a needle from miles away. Don’t even try to pretend there’s nothing wrong if the truth is that something has upset you. Gently talk about the issue. Ignoring the issue or leaving them in it will just feel cruel – as it would for anyone. As with any relationship, be gentle with exits and entrances – what you say and feel matters, especially the way you start and finish.
Anxiety has a way of presenting decisions as though one will be the right one, and one will carve colossal fault lines through their life – but which decision is which! When people with anxiety make a decision it will most often be the right one, because of the effort that has gone into making it – that’s why we love them. To ease anxiety around decision making, hold back from giving a shopping list of options – ‘Where should we go for dinner? Thai? Indian? We could try Italian. We haven’t been to that Vietnamese place for a while. Or maybe we should just stay in and watch a movie. Or maybe we could see what the others are doing and order pizza. Totally your call.’ More options won’t help. If there is clearly no preference coming from their side of the street, offer yours, ‘This is what I think we should do …’ or limit the options, ‘Indian or Italian. What do you think?’ Sometimes, the best decision is the one you don’t have to make.
Don’t leave them wondering.
If there is something you need to say, say it. Don’t leave the person hanging by letting them know on Monday, that you would like to see them on Friday because you have something you need to talk to them about. If there is something unknown, an anxious person will fill in the gaps over and over with different possibilities, most of them negative ones. Again, this isn’t an over-reaction, it’s a physical reaction. Their protective brain will set to the task of keeping them safe, just in case Friday comes with catastrophic news. In brain-speak, this means setting off the fight or flight response, which in people-speak means anxiety.
Don’t change plans at the last minute if you can avoid it.
The way anxiety is managed is by being prepared for different possibilities. This is a great strength, but like so many strengths it can also be a massive hurdle. If you can, try to avoid changing plans at the last minute. It will just create the need for a flurry of new contingency plans – and nobody needs that.
Share your own stuff.
If you are with someone who is anxious, you’ll know their vulnerabilities because you will have probably seen them. This is a sure sign that you are one of the trusted few – the inner circle that they think the world of. Let them know about your frayed edges too. We all have them, and the beauty of human connection lies in the honesty of the mutual reveal.
People. Nope. Not today. Probably not tomorrow either.
We all have our strengths and we all have the things that get the better of us. If you live with someone with anxiety, things like answering the phone or answering the door can feel bigger than it might for you. Similarly, having to book a restaurant, buy tickets, or anything that involves having to communicate with strangers can feel like an uphill climb. Of course, they can do it if they need to – they can do anything – but when you can, offer to do these little things. In return, you can bet they’ll have the umbrella when it’s raining, the witty lines when you need a laugh, the chicken soup when you need some loving. Have their back when you can, and know that they’ll have yours too. You know they will.
Take the party to them.
Suggest having time out close to home – a DVD at their place or dinner in their part of the world. Familiarity is a beautiful thing. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for stretching – there’s always room for that – but the occasional night off from stretching never hurt anyone.
Never assume anything is too hard, too scary or too easy. People with anxiety have courage and strength by the truckload. Sometimes they’ll be ready to put themselves out there, and sometimes they won’t. Sometimes they’ll want space and sometimes they’ll want you right beside them. None of us come with instructions and all of us love people who care enough to ask.
And finally …
Anxiety can be wildly frustrating and confusing for everyone. If you’re not the one who is experiencing it, be thankful, because it just as easily could have been. Anxiety makes experiences difficult, not people, and it’s important to always see your important person as separate to their anxiety. People with anxiety have qualities that make them true keepers, but if you love something with anxiety, you would know that already. They are thoughtful, sensitive, wise and strong. And sometimes they have anxiety.
We all have our ‘stuff’ and as with anything, when it comes to anxiety, there are things that will soothe it and things that will make it worse. Be the one who understands what to do when your loved one is in the thick of anxiety. We all need someone who will fight for us, beside us.