What they might not be able to ask for but wish you knew.
Most of us who know or love someone who is anxious intend to be supportive, even helpful, in our interactions.
We know to listen and not judge. To be patient when it’s hard to talk about issues. We even know to keep our own feelings in check so we don’t rev up an already tense situation.
That said, this is OUR experience of loving them.
What it’s like to be the person experiencing the anxiety is something very different. It isn’t always easy to know their loved ones are walking on eggshells or biting their tongues to prevent things from going from bad to worse. Feelings like this can be very hard to manage because they inspire a mix of gratitude and shame at the same time. It’s hard enough to be anxious, but worrying about its impact can escalate anxiety, thanks to secondary anxiety.
It can feel good to be cared about, but it can also be shameful to think about the impact of their anxiety on others, or even articulate what they really need. How does someone tell you that the love you’re offering is good, but not GREAT? That there are things you could do that would be better than what you’re doing now? That’s pretty hard to say. Sometimes, it’s downright impossible.
For a second, just imagine if your anxious friend could freely speak their mind…say the true words in their heart to help you see the very BEST way to support them.
If you were a mind-reader, you might hear these 7 truths from your anxious friend:
1. There Are Certain Phrases that Only Make It Worse.
Please avoid these phrases: calm down, there’s no reason to be anxious, there’s nothing to be afraid of, you don’t have to be afraid.
These phrases all share a dismissal of the person’s feelings, which only adds to their shame and confusion. Feelings, unfortunately, can’t be changed or turned off, only our thoughts about them.
Try instead to say: I know you are uncomfortable and scared, but you will get through this; As inconvenient as they are, these are your feelings and you will figure them out; I know you are scared, and I am standing with you; We’ll get through this together.
2. Know that Your Questions or Helpful Suggestions Can Feel Like Judgment and Pressure, Even if You Don’t Mean It that Way.
You may be tempted to make suggestions, say something positive, or simply ask for more information.
But if you aren’t careful, your attempts to understand can be interpreted as judgment or pressure, and highlight her own self-frustrations about not understanding for herself how she is feeling and what she needs from you.
Your anxious friend is most likely besieged by her own unmet expectations of herself and is feeling so much pressure already that not being able to answer your question or implement your suggestion could leave her feeling worse.
3. Avoid Giving Too Much “Space.”
An anxious person can misinterpret this as abandonment, and abandonment, or the fear of it, can be an escalator to anxious feelings.
Even though your loved one may tell you she wants to be alone, she wishes she could say, “Stay with me. PLEASE. Don’t add abandonment or hurting your feelings to my list of worries.”
4. Be Friends First — Share and Listen.
Remember that feeling normal matters. If every conversation is about their anxiety, it won’t feel like a genuine friendship.
Friends and loves ones both share, so remember to not make it about them all the time.
When you do speak about their anxiety, ask questions about how they are feeling or what can they tell you about what’s worrying them or scaring them.
Naming their experience will not only help, but it will also better illustrate what they need from you.
Likewise, telling them what you are hearing and that you are there can help reassure them.
5. Gentle Distraction and Humor Are Helpful.
What do you and your loved one enjoy doing? Or how could you get your loved one laughing?
Research shows that humor can be an effective tool for coping with acute anxiety.1 Sharing some funny news, or even watching a favorite comedy on Netflix can help lighten the mood, and distract.
6. Remember that Your Friend May Not Know What They Need.
In a confused space, it’s easy to feel scared and overwhelmed. Your loved one isn’t trying to be difficult or frustrate you. They want to understand and explain things to you, they just might not be able to, or might be afraid to be honest. Sometimes all they really need is you to let them know you are there. You don’t have to solve it for them — being a calming influence can be powerful.
7. Recognize You May Be Anxious Too.
Anxiety can be contagious and it isn’t hard to get activated when someone you love gets scared. You care about them and don’t want to see them suffer, and you may even share some of their anxiety. Know that your own anxiety can escalate your feelings, and you could get angry. Try not to.
Their anxiety may be impacting you, but it isn’t personal. Containing your own frustration, fears, and irritation can be tough but can pay off in boosting your empathy, which can, in turn, deescalate a loved one’s anxiety.
No matter what you say or do, the most important thing an anxious person needs to know is that they are loved and not alone.
Standing with them, and bearing witness to their experience, conveys the critical message that you can handle it, and most importantly, that they can too.
- Abel, M. H. (2002) Humor, stress, and coping strategies. Humor, 15(4) 365– 381. Retrieved from http://web.csulb.edu/~jmiles/psy100/abel.pdf
This guest article originally appeared on YourTango.com: A Quick-Start Guide To Supporting Someone Who Has Serious Anxiety.