It’s understandably confusing at times, so consider this your cheat sheet. 13 things for you to remember when loving someone with anxiety.
1. They are more than just their anxiety
No one likes to be defined by one attribute of themselves. If you truly want to be supportive of someone with anxiety, remind them that you appreciate the individual behind the anxiety. Recognise that they are more than just their anxiety.
It sounds like it would be common sense to do so, we don’t go around seeing people by one solitary attribute in most cases, but people have a tendency to become blind-sighted by mental health issues. They are still a human being with all the complexities that everyone else has. Please, remember that.
2. They can get tired easily
Anxiety is exhausting. It seems like the only people that understand how tiring it really can be is people with anxiety themselves. Anxiety causes people to live in hyper-tense states. They are always on alert, their mind is very rarely settled, and their body is always ready to fight or flight. With the hypertension comes fatigue. Situations that people without anxiety can just breeze through are more tiring for those with anxiety.
Ever had a stressful work week, where every day you woke up thinking “wow, I really hope I get a break soon”? That’s an anxious person’s every day, and it’s tiring. Remember that next time you’re pushing someone with anxiety to be more ‘productive.’
3. They can get overwhelmed easily
Tying into the previously noted hyper-tense state, they’re also overwhelmed easily because of it. They’re aware of everything going on around them. Every noise, every action, every smell, every light, every person, every object. For someone existing in such a hyper-alert state a situation that doesn’t seem that overwhelming (e.g. the thought of more than a handful of people talking in a room) can cause their head to spin. You can read more about that here.
When trying to encourage someone with anxiety to go somewhere, just keep in mind that the stimuli you enjoy can just as easily be overwhelming for them. Try not to lock them into the situation. Ensure they know they can leave and are capable of doing so at any point.
4. They are well aware their anxiety is often irrational
Being aware of the irrationality does not stop the thoughts from racing. It does not stop the thinking of hundreds of different worst-case scenarios. If it was as easy as saying “okay, that’s irrational – no point worrying about it,” the majority of those living with anxiety would not have problems with it anymore.
One of the worst things about anxiety is how aware of the irrationality they can be. Pointing out that it’s irrational doesn’t help – they already know this. What they need is compassion, understanding, and support – very rarely do they need advice on how irrational and pointless their anxiety it (because that’s not even advice.) You can learn more about that here.
5. They can communicate how they feel (you just have to actually listen)
Having anxiety does not mean that they are incapable of expressing or communicating. (Unless they’re panicking, in which case they likely can’t. Don’t try to get them to either!) They still like to talk and they still like to speak for themselves. They will tell you how they feel.
Often when people think someone with anxiety, or really any problem whatsoever, can’t or won’t communicate – it’s because they’re choosing not to, and it’s usually because the other party has been entirely dismissive the last time they opened up. So next time when you think they’re incapable of speaking for themselves, bite your tongue and give them the opportunity to actually speak. Then take the time to listen.
6. They don’t need someone constantly asking “are you okay?” while they’re panicking
When you see someone panicking and you know they have anxiety, do you really need to ask “are you okay?”
You already know the answer. Their heart is pounding a million miles an hour, their hands are clamming up, their chest is tightening, their limbs are vibrating from all the adrenalin and their mind has just sunken into the limbic system’s ‘fight or flight’ response. Honestly? Part of them probably thinks they’re dying. So instead of asking “are you okay?” try something a little more helpful and constructive. Good examples would be:
- “Remember your breathing”
- “Remember <insert whatever technique that has helped them before>”
- “Would you like help me to help you to somewhere quieter/safer/calmer?”
- “I’m here if you need me.” (At this point, you should leave them alone unless they ask)
- “You’re panicking, it won’t last. You’ve got past this before, you’ll get past it again”
But the key to all of this: If they ask you to leave them alone – leave them alone! They are experienced in handling their anxiety; let them get through it however they see fit.
7. They appreciate you sticking by them
Anxiety is rough on everyone involved, which means you too. They understand that, they understand their irrationality; they understand you’ve not done some things you would’ve liked to because they couldn’t. They’re not oblivious to what it takes to support them.
If there’s one thing in common that you’ll find across the board for everyone with anxiety, it’s that they over think – they over think a lot. Part of this over thinking always comes back to the people that have supported them, always. Your support doesn’t go unmissed – no matter how subtle you may think it’s been.
8. They can find it hard to let it go
Part of anxiety is the constant over thinking, but to really understand this we need to understand where the over thinking stems from. When anyone is faced with a traumatic incident in their life, which most people with anxiety have had more than their fair share of, the memory (if not properly dealt with) can end up stored in part of the limbic system of the brain that the mind uses to determine if we are at ‘risk.’ You can find out more about that here.
The memory is stored in a completely different manner and region of the brain in comparison to an everyday memory that gets filed away. This causes the brain to react differently to the memory. The brain is actively seeking to make links between the traumatic memory and the present situation it’s in (partly the cause of the hyper-tense state.)
When the brain is caught in this cycle, letting go of things can be very difficult. When the brain is trained to remain in this cycle through prolonged anxiety, letting go of pretty much anything can be a tough task. People with anxiety cannot always just ‘let it go,’ their brain won’t let them, so please don’t give them a hard time about it.
9. They can find change difficult (even if it’s expected)
Everyone has a comfort zone, anxiety or not. Pushing that comfort zone can be difficult for even the most well-adjusted person, so for people with anxiety it can be even more challenging. This is not to be confused with the sentiment that those with anxiety dislike change or pushing their comfort zones, because they will likely thrive once they’re actually in the process of doing so. They can just find it a lot more difficult to bring themselves to do so.
The one relief people with anxiety tend to get from their anxiety is when they’re allowed to be in their place of comfort with nothing major changing around them. When they’re faced with a big change and uprooting, it can take them a lot longer to settle back down and establish that zone again. Just remember to have a little more patience and understanding for those with anxiety. They’re trying, they really are.
10. They aren’t (always) intentionally ignoring you
Part of managing anxiety is controlling the inner monologue that comes with it. Sometimes this can be a very attention-consuming act. The strangest things can set off obscure thought patterns for those with anxiety. If they suddenly drift out of the conversation, there’s a good chance they’re over thinking something that’s just been said or they’re trying to calm their thoughts down. Both take immense concentration.
They’re not ignoring you; or not intentionally at least. They’re just trying not to have a mental breakdown right there in front of you. You don’t need to ask “are you okay?” and you especially don’t need to quiz them on what you just said. If it’s important, try gently bringing it back up when they seem more attentive.
Their mind can be a war zone at times. They will drop out of conversations unexpectedly and they will feel bad for doing so if they realise it. Reassure them that you understand and ensure they’ve fully digested any important news you may have discussed, especially if it involves them handling some responsibility (maybe make a note of it too!)
11. They aren’t always present
As mentioned in the above point, they’re not always present in a conversation, but it’s not just conversation that can trigger this reaction. Everyday events can cause everyone to get lost in contemplation at some point or another, but for those with anxiety almost everything can serve as a contemplative trigger. They will recede into the depths of their mind quite regularly and you’ll likely notice the vacancy on their face. Contrary to what romantic movies suggest, it’s not always cute to come up and spook them while they’re lost in thought (though sometimes it definitely can be!)
Gently nudge them back to reality regularly. Remind them where they are, what they’re doing (not literally, they’re anxious – they don’t have short term memory loss), and to appreciate it. They’ll greatly appreciate you doing so. You can learn more about mindfulness and how it relates to anxiety here.