As human beings, it’s in our nature to care for those we love. If something’s wrong, we want to find ways to make things better.
One of my best friends suffered with anxiety for years. When he first confided in me, I was shocked. Below are insights I’ve gathered for helping someone with anxiety.
Anxiety disorders often involve overgeneralization
According to Rick Nauert, PhD, people with anxiety disorders view the world differently and over-generalize stimuli. Sometimes people with anxiety disorders have a hard time mentally distinguishing a normal, everyday occurrence from a past negative situation where they observed a similar sound or visual cue. They may overgeneralize all related sounds or visual triggers with a negative emotion that in reality is totally unrelated to the present-day event.
It’s important to empathize and understand that a friend or family member suffering from anxiety can experience negative mental reactions to almost anything. The brain has an incredible ability to network events and stimuli from a wide range of past events to shape our present perception. It’s difficult for individuals with an anxiety disorder to disentangle their complex mental network.
For example, a recent study found that smartphone addiction correlates to depression and anxiety. Almost anything can affect someone in a unique and unexpected way, potentially contributing to the development of an anxiety disorder.
Defining anxiety disorders
To better understand and empathize with what a loved one might be going through, it’s important to define what an anxiety disorder can mean. According to John Grohol, Psy.D., an anxiety disorder is a situation where constant fear, panic or other physicals symptoms of anxiety begin to inhibit the living of a healthy, fulfilling life. For example, if someone is experiencing fatigue and constant muscle tension as a result of constant worry, and it’s affecting his or her daily life, then it’s likely an anxiety disorder.
There are a wide variety of anxiety disorders, ranging from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) to social phobia. Each has a specific set of symptoms and reliable diagnosis requires a consultation with a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist.
Help is available
Resources are available to help individuals with anxiety and those who love them. The first step is spending time with a friend or family member, learning about the individual’s symptoms and concerns. Encourage open and honest dialogue, but don’t push beyond your loved one’s personal comfort zone. Encourage the individual who suffers with anxiety to confide in you by building trust. Offer a list of psychiatrists or trained medical professionals in the area. Be patient. Opening up is difficult, and accepting help can be even more challenging.
An untreated anxiety disorder can result in self-medicating. Addictions cost the U.S. billions of dollars annually. Failing to quickly seek help from qualified professionals can put an individual on a path that is both self-destructive and costly to society at large. There’s a fine line between being supportive and enabling someone who doesn’t want to take steps to get help. Focus on providing support on a path toward healing.
According to a study published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), being around a best friend can significantly reduce the negative effects of a stressful situation by lowering the amount of cortisol (a chemical in the brain linked to stress) in an individual experiencing stress or anxiety. The simple act of spending time with a friend or family member suffering from an anxiety disorder provides immediate relief from stress or anxiety. Loneliness and isolation, or feeling distant from familiar people, can have negative impacts on anxiety levels.
Respectfully challenge their perspective
When friends or family members express an illogical or inaccurate perspective, offer your own interpretation. Offering your advice, without calling them names or trying to make them feel stupid, is an important opportunity for them to consider a different perspective.
One method for changing a thought pattern is through meditation. Studies have backed up medical findings that meditation helps reduce anxiety, as well as other physical and emotional ailments. Encourage friends or family members to attempt to center themselves and focus emotionally. The benefits can be quick and long-lasting.
Use positive reinforcement
The best step toward making positive changes in life is positive reward. For example, if your friend takes steps to overcome his or her fear, you should be encouraging. Even if your friend doesn’t succeed, the act of taking a step toward making a positive change should be met with praise.