Anxiety is unpredictable, confusing and intrusive. It’s tough. Not just for the people who have it but also for the people who love them. If you are one of those people, you would know too well that the second hand experience of anxiety feels bad enough – you’d do anything to make it better for the one going through it.
We all have our ‘stuff’ – the things that we struggle with. Ultimately, they are the things that will make us braver, wiser, stronger, more compassionate and better humans. It’s just the way it works. The difference with anxiety is that the struggle is more visible.
Whether we struggle with anxiety, confidence, body image – whatever – there are things that we all need to make the world a little bit safer, a little bit more predictable, a little less scary. We all have our list. When someone you love has anxiety, their list is likely to look at little like this:
It’s no biggie. So don’t act like it is.
In the thick of an anxiety attack nothing will make sense, so best not to ask what’s going on or if they’re okay. No. They won’t be okay. And yes. It will feel like the world is falling apart at the seams. They’ll be feeling awful, but they’ll get through it. If you’ve seen it all before there’ll be no need to ask anyway – and they’ll love that you know not to. Ask if they want to go somewhere else – maybe somewhere quieter or more private. Don’t panic or do anything that might give them the idea that you need looking after. Go for a walk with them – physical activity is the natural end of the fight or flight response, which is the trigger point of anxiety. Otherwise just be there. They’ll know what to do. They’ll have done it plenty of times before. Soon it will pass and when it does they’ll be able to talk to you about what has happened, but wait for that. Then listen. We all love when someone is able to just be there.
There’s a bit to know, so if you can understand everything you can … well that makes you kind of awesome.
It makes a difference to be able to talk about anxiety without having to explain it. On the days they don’t feel like they have it in them to talk about it, it means a lot that you just ‘get it’. If you’ve tried to understand everything you can about what it means to have anxiety then that’s enough. Anxiety is hard to make sense of – people with anxiety will be the first to tell you that – but it will mean everything that you’ve tried. They’ll love you for it.
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Anxiety is a completely normal physical response to a brain that’s being a little over-protective. It’s not crazy and it’s not deficient. There’s a primitive part of the brain that’s geared to sense threat. It’s all action and not a lot of thought and it’s in all of us. For some people, it fires up a lot sooner and with a lot less reason than it does in others. When it does, it surges the body with cortisol (the stress hormone) and adrenalin to get the body ready to run for its life or fight for it. This is the fight or flight response and it’s in everyone. It’s just that in some people (people with anxiety) the ‘go’ button is a bit more sensitive.
You’ll want them as part of your tribe. (Seriously. They’re pretty great to have around.)
Because of their need to stay safe and to prepare against the next time anxiety rears its head, people who struggle with anxiety will generally have a plan – and they will have worked hard to make sure it works for everyone involved, not just for themselves. They’ll make sure everything has been organised to keep everyone safe, happy, on time and out of trouble. They’ll make sure everyone has what they need and if there’s anything that hasn’t been thought of, well it’s probably not worth thinking about. Notice the good things they do – there are plenty. Let them know you love them because of who they are, including who they are with anxiety, not despite it.
Anxiety has nothing to do with courage or character. Nothing at all.
Courage is feeling the edge of yourself and moving beyond it. We all have our limits but people with anxiety are just more aware of theirs. Despite this, they are constantly facing up to the things that push against their edges. That’s courage, and people with anxiety have it in truckloads. Remind them that you see who they are and that this has nothing to do with that anxiety thing they do sometimes. People with anxiety are strong – you have to be to live with something like that. They’re sensitive – they’ll be as sensitive to you and what you need as they are to their environment. That makes them pretty awesome to be with. They’re reliable – to control for the potential of something triggering an attack, anxious people will go the extra step to make sure there’s a plan and that everyone is safe, happy and have everything they need. They’re intelligent – they’re thinkers (which is what gets in their way sometimes). They can be funny, kind, brave and spirited. So I suppose it’s like this – they’re no different to anyone else. As with everyone, the thing that trips them up sometimes (their anxiety) is also the thing that lifts them above the crowd.
Make sure there’s room to say ‘no’. And don’t take it personally.
Sometimes plans might need to be changed to steer clear of anxiety stepping in unexpectedly. People with anxiety will be sensitive to your needs (they’re pretty great like that) and changing plans isn’t something they’ll do lightly. Your flexibility will never be taken for granted. There are many things in the environment that most people think nothing of, but which can be the beginning of an anxiety attack for a brain on hyper-drive. Things that are ambiguous or neutral can sometimes be read as a threat – not by the person, but by an overprotective brain. People with anxiety are super-aware of everything going on – smells, sounds, people, possibilities. It’s exhausting when your attention is drawn to so many things. Don’t take ‘no’ personally – they’re never meant like that. Know that just because they might not want to be doing what you’re doing, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be with you. Keep offering – don’t assume everything you offer will be met with ‘no’ – but be understanding and ‘no big deal’ if you aren’t taken up on your offer. They are saying no to a potential anxiety attack. Not to you.
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Loads of lovin’ never hurt anyone.
Be compassionate and be there. Talk up the things you love about them. There will be times that people with anxiety will feel like they are their anxiety and that they are a source of difficulty. (Who hasn’t felt like they’re making things harder than they need to be? C’mon be honest.) Specifically, I’m talking about when plans have to be changed, when you need to book a few rows back from the front row, turn the radio down, take the long way. If this is the worst you have to deal with in a friend, sign me up.
Anxiety can change shape.
Anxiety can be slippery. Sometimes it looks the way you’d expect anxiety to look. Other times it looks cranky, depressed or frustrated. Remember this and don’t take it personally.
Don’t try to make sense of what’s happening.
People with anxiety know that their anxiety doesn’t make sense. That’s what makes it so difficult. Explaining that there’s nothing to worry about won’t mean anything – it just won’t – because they already know this. (Oh boy do they know this!) They would have told themselves not to worry a billion times the number of times you’ve said it to them. If it hasn’t helped so far then one more won’t make a difference. Be understanding, calm and relaxed and above all else, just be there. Anxiety feels flighty and there’s often nothing that feels better than having someone beside you who’s grounded, available and okay to go through this with you without trying to change you. Telling them not to worry is as effective as asking you not to think about pink elephants. Really try not to think about pink elephants swinging from a vine. With flowers in their hair. Just stop thinking about them, those crazy big pink babes. See how that works?
Don’t try to change them.
You’ll want to give advice. But don’t. Let them know that to you, they’re absolutely fine the way they are and that you don’t need to change them or fix them. If they ask for your advice then of course, go for it. but otherwise, let them know that they are enough. More than enough actually. Just the way they are.
‘You just need to get over it,’ said the person who doesn’t get it.
Anxiety just happens and often there’s no real target. So if you’re suggesting they just need to ‘get over it’, the obvious question is get over what? If people with anxiety only needed a bit of direction to ‘get over it’, they would have given it to themselves and been over it long ago. Telling them to get over it is like telling them they’re doing something wrong. You don’t tell an asthmatic just to breathe. Tough love isn’t love. It’s just tough. Actually it isn’t even that.
Don’t confuse their need to control their environment with their need to control you. Sometimes they look the same. They’re not.
The need to control for everything that might go wrong is hard work. For the same reasons that drive anxious people to make sure that everyone has what they need, everyone is looked after, that things are under control and the likelihood of anything turning bad is minimised – for the same reasons you’re looked after – you might also feel controlled. See it for what it is. It’s the need to feel safe and in control of the possibility of anxiety running the show – not the need to control you. You might get frustrated – that’s okay – all relationships go through that. Having compassion doesn’t mean you have to go along with everything put in front of you, so talk things out gently if you need to. Don’t be critical though. Nobody likes that. Just remember, while your resistance might look more like a ‘won’t’ theirs looks more like a ‘can’t’.
And finally …
Know how important you are to them. Anyone who stays around through the hard stuff is a keeper. People with anxiety know this. Being there for someone during their struggles will only bring the relationship closer. Nothing sparks a connection more than really getting someone, being there, and bringing the fun into the relationship – because you’ve gotta have fun. Be the one who refuses to let anxiety suck the life of out everything. And know you’re a keeper. Yep. You are. Know that they are grateful – so grateful – for everything you do. And that they love you back.