How To Care for Your Anxious Loved One
Loving someone who suffers from anxiety and panic can be confusing and seem impossible at times. Many people are confused by anxiety and do not understand the symptoms and fears their loved one experiences. Often, frustration and fear can lead you to declare such thoughts as: ‘it’s not that bad, just think better thoughts, or it’s only in your head.’
Although it is true that anxiety increases with negative thinking, the fear an anxious person experiences when attempting daily activities can feel excruciating. Your anxious loved one knows that their thoughts are not real, but they experience their fears in a very real way. To better help you understand and respond in a helpful way to your loved one’s anxiety, it is important to first understand exactly what anxiety is.
Although we all face stressful circumstances and situations throughout life, anxiety is the persistent feeling of worry and anticipation of bad (horrific) things that may happen. These fears persist throughout most of an individual’s waking hours, and can cause physical symptoms such as muscle tension, difficulty breathing, chest pains, dizziness, and gastrointestinal problems to name a few. Because these persistent fears are not ‘rational’, the attempts of an individual to explain their experience to others can create even more anxiety because they feel ‘crazy’. That is why it is essential to understand and approach your loved one with compassion, and a desire to help them decrease the anxiety and their symptoms.
How Anxiety Impacts Relationships?
Strain and distance. Anxiety can impact relationships (both romantic and platonic) in many ways. For the anxious person, there is often a sense of shame and embarrassment associated with their thoughts and feelings. Anxiety can cause someone to avoid going out to public spaces, a person may persistently cancel plans due to fear of having a panic attack, and anxiety causes irritability that can alienate people from the ones they love.
Not wanting to do or say the wrong thing. Witnessing someone you love in the midst of an anxiety attack can be overwhelming. Your desire to help and care for your loved one can sometimes backfire on you. Your loved one might withdraw, shut down, or become hostile to your attempts to help them. Your response may be to fix, control, or walk away from your loved one.
Anger & Confusion. You may feel there is no hope and out of anger, confusion, and or frustration tell your loved one that ‘it is all in their head and they have nothing to worry about’.
Anxiety can feel contagious. You may also become anxious yourself as a result of anticipating your loved ones’ anxiety attacks or not knowing what level of anxiety they are experiencing in a given moment. You may also feel anxious when you feel nothing you do or say is helping your loved one.
How You Can Help
The essential component to helping your loved one is demonstrating compassion for their experience and a desire to understand their perspective on their fearful thoughts and physiological symptoms. Questions like ‘tell me what you’re thinking and feeling’ allow the anxious individual to express their feelings. By simply allowing your loved one to state their experience gives them a space to feel validated.
Validation is paramount to positive psychological and emotional development. By validating a loved ones’ concern, you decrease their feelings of shame and guilt for feeling afraid. Saying something as simple as ‘it sounds like your anxiety is high today, or ‘I get why you feel overwhelmed’ can decrease the defenses that keep anxiety in place, and allow your loved one to feel as though they have a right to their feelings without feeling ‘crazy’. Here are some other suggestions that may help, but it’s always important to ask your loved one what works for them best.
- Name the anxiety and the feelings as the issue not the person.
- Ask how you can help, or what the person needs. “What can I do to help?”
- Reiterate that you want to help. You can also state that you don’t want your loved one to feel alone in their fear.
- Try offering an activity to help distract the anxious person. “Would you like to take a walk, cook dinner, or would you like to sit together?”
- Check in. “How is your anxiety? Do you notice any changes in the intensity of your symptoms?”
- Listen openly to your loved one. Let them share their fears whether they seem real or not. Often, anxiety decreases by letting the person state their concerns.
- Ask your loved one: “Is this helpful?
- Follow up with your loved one: “Yesterday/earlier today, your anxiety seemed really painful, how are you feeling today/now?”
What NOT to Say or Do
- Be dismissive of your loved ones’ feelings. Saying things like ‘that’s silly, or get over it’ can actually increase anxiety and cause your loved one to isolate from you.
- Talk at them persistently. Often, seeing a loved one experience anxiety or panic can cause you to feel anxious and afraid. A typical response to your own fear may be to speak rapidly at your loved one. Using calm and slow speech will help your loved one to stabilize. The anxious mind cannot properly process too much at once.
- Declare your frustration and try to solve or fix the problem. This will only exacerbate your loved one’s sense of shame and guilt.
If you are reading this article, perhaps you or your loved one experiences anxiety and/or panic. It can feel lonely and frustrating for both you and your anxious loved one. Yet, if anxiety is understood it can lead to greater connection and happiness in relationships. By connecting with your loved one through the anxiety, a deepening of love and appreciation for one another emerges and an increase in compassion for self and other is strengthened.