According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of “tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure." So yes, it is a regular, degular, shmegular emotion like happiness or sadness. Anxiety isn’t entirely bad either – it is an inner resource, a signal that there’s something you need to pay attention to.
Anxiety can also be persistent, seemingly uncontrollable and overpowering. When there is an excessive, irrational dread of everyday situations, it can be disabling. What’s more, when anxiety interferes with daily activities, it can be a disorder, which is a real and serious condition. It is important to say this because I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve heard people dismiss anxiety by saying ignorant things like, “(s)he just needs to chill” or “(s)he’s doing too much, it’s not that serious.” Dismissing or invalidating someone’s anxiety is the same as dismissing or invalidating someone’s heart condition or diabetes. They are both equally significant and REAL. In fact, anxiety disorders are the most common and pervasive disorders in the United States.
Anxiety comes in many different forms and variations (i.e. procrastination, irritability, addictive self-soothing) and can show up in numerous ways. Below are specific things that may be helpful to you and whomever you are supporting:
Listen and be patient – folks with anxiety have lots of thoughts in their minds, and talking it out with someone can be very helpful. The goal isn’t to fix or even understand, really, (because you may never fully understand, and that’s OK). Even when what they are saying seems illogical or irrational to you, provide an ear. Judging someone else’s thoughts can trivialize them and do more harm than good. Who likes unsolicited advice, anyway?
Ask how you can help – asking gives the other person control to choose how they want to be supported, and that can be empowering. Also be mindful that they may not know, which goes back to #1.
Support through treatment – anxiety – at any level – is treatable, and treatment can consistent of the following, alone or in combination: therapy, medication, breathing techniques, exercising, etc. Whatever your partner/friend/whoever decides to do, support them through it, regardless of your own thoughts about it.
Take care of yourself and your own mental health – this goes without saying but it is often overlooked. Spending a lot of time around people with high levels of anxiety can be overwhelming. As such, it is of the utmost importance that you find effective ways to take care of yourself. Taking time to unplug from devices and people or taking “mini moments of wellness” (i.e. therapy, yoga, grounding yourself, etc) can be very useful.
Above all, supporting someone through their anxiety will teach you a lot about compassion and humility. As trite as the saying is, you truly don’t know until you know.
I want to hear from you! Do you have experiences supporting someone else through their anxiety? What has that been like? If you suffer from anxiety, what do you find most helpful from those around you?