It wasn’t until the past few years I realized how badly I suffered from anxiety. Simple things like waiting to hear back from someone or anticipating how something could turn out would leave my stomach in knots and my heart and mind racing. Now that I understand what anxiety is and how to help alleviate it, I understand a little bit better when I’m experiencing it. I don’t pretend to know all the answers when it comes to anxiety or mental health, and I understand my experience isn’t universal, but I hope these things can help anyone who loves someone else with anxiety and for the person with anxiety to realize they aren’t alone.
1. It’s not just all in their head and they can’t just “get over” anxiety.
Over 40 million people have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder but those numbers don’t report the other people who suffer with it every day without reporting it to their doctor.Anxiety is not something that can be cured with a simple “everything will be alright. there’s nothing to worry about.” The thing about anxiety is that nobody’s entirely sure where it comes from or what causes it. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) explains, “Panic disorder sometimes runs in families, but no one knows for sure why some people have it, while others don’t.”
2. Anxiety is an overwhelming experience.
Anxiety can leave a person feeling like their whole world is caving in. The first time I had a panic attack I was a teenager in a large shopping center with my mother. Suddenly, my mind was racing. I was sweating. The store suddenly felt very small and all of my senses were heightened. I felt like I was going to faint. My mom couldn’t understand it and I couldn’t understand it at the time either. We were just standing in an aisle while she was shopping for something. What was the problem?
When someone is experiencing anxiety, or when they suddenly have a panic attack, they get into a hyper-sense state where suddenly everything becomes very loud and very bright to them. The environment suddenly becomes a very overwhelming place.
3. Telling your loved one to “relax,” “calm down,” or that something is “no big deal” doesn’t help their anxiety. Sometimes, it only makes it worse.
When someone tells you they’re worried or anxious about something, listen to what they’re saying. Let them explain why something has them all at sea. Hear them out and try to understand from their point of view why they’re feeling the way they do. It’s understandable that people want to provide solutions or express to their loved one that whatever is causing them anxiety is actually not a huge deal, and it may not be, but in the moment when an anxious person is at the height of their emotion, telling them to relax only makes them feel like you’re brushing aside something that is very real to them.
4. Not every anxious person is triggered by the same thing, and often, anxiety has no obvious triggers at all.
Something that’s fun or enjoyable for you could have the complete opposite effect on someone with anxiety. For example, one of my anxiety triggers is being in large crowds. This is a problem for me because I love going to concerts and hearing live music.
A couple weeks ago I went to a music festival with a co-worker and in the middle of trying to leave after Drake performed, we were body to body with 50,000 people, all trying to leave the festival. We couldn’t move and we were in a stand still. Immediately, my mind started racing, thinking about how this was a dangerous situation to be in, and about how many times I’ve heard of fatal incidences at music festivals where people were in this exact situation, and about how all I wanted was to get out and away from everyone. This was all going through my head, whereas my co-worker thought it was fun and awesome to be in the crowd with everyone.
Later, when I told one of my friends about it who has anxiety, she said, “Oh, interesting. Being around a lot of people doesn’t bother me. It’s when I’m faced with being in a one-on-one situation with someone, like if my friend randomly invites a new person to get drinks and leaves me alone with them, and then there’s uncomfortable silence because I’m too awkward to make conversation – THAT’S what sends me into an instant panic until I have to excuse myself and go to the bathroom or escape the situation.”
Basically, what I’m saying is, not every anxious person’s experience is universal. We all experience anxiety differently, albeit in similar ways. Although someone can be self-aware of what factors seem to heighten their anxiety (drinking coffee, for example), there are no particular things you can predict that will engage a panic attack. They can come completely out of nowhere.
5. Sometimes they just need to be alone.
There are times when your loved one might decline to hang out over the weekend or with your friends so that they can be alone to decompress and just be by themselves. Try to remember to not take this personal. Remember their anxiety isn’t a reflection on you or your relationship with them. People who deal with anxiety often just need more time to work things out in their head and think about everything going on in their life, especially if they’ve been particularly stressed lately.
6. They understand their fears can be irrational at times.
They know there are plenty of times when their anxiety makes absolutely no sense. Even if you both discuss the reality of the situation, their thought process is still thinking about the worse outcomes.
7. It can be difficult for them to let go of their fears.
Even if they’ve talked it all through and they rationally understand there’s nothing to be anxious about, it can still be incredibly hard for them to let of the mindset there isn’t something wrong.
8. If they open up to you about their anxiety, consider it a huge sign of trust.
One of the hardest parts of dealing with anxiety is feeling like you can’t talk about it. The stigma that surrounds mental health is difficult to deal with because it makes those who have been diagnosed with a disorder feel like they’re weird and shouldn’t be open about their experience. If your loved one opens up to you about their anxiety, it’s a sign they feel comfortable and open enough with you to be honest about a significant part of their life.
9. You won’t always be able to tell when they’re dealing with anxiety.
Just because someone is feeling extremely anxious, it doesn’t mean they’re going to be sitting there outwardly displaying signs of an anxious person. Many times people with anxiety suffer silently because they don’t want to make a big deal out of something or because, well, it can be embarrassing to admit. There have been times where I’ve been at a party and a friend has told me quietly they needed to leave because they were feeling anxious. If they wouldn’t have said anything I probably wouldn’t have guessed anything was wrong.
Remember that even people who seem totally fine can be battling a war inside their mind.
10. You might not understand the ways they practice self-care.
Self-care is one of the most important things when going through a stressful time, and it’s the little things that can make them feel better. Maybe it’s doing a deep clean of the apartment or a closet, organizing books in a bookshelf by genre vs. alphabetical. You might think it’s odd that the best way your loved one feels better is by cleaning the dishes, but many times these kind of activities are a form of meditation and help soothe the anxiety.
11. It’s important you remember to practice your own self-care as well.
Just because the person you love deals with anxiety, it doesn’t mean you have to walk on eggshells around them. They understand it can be a lot to deal with sometimes and they’re grateful to have someone who cares about them. They don’t expect you to forgive all of their flaws or mistakes – that’s where patience and understanding are truly appreciated. But if things become too draining for you, you must also decide for yourself what your limits are in your relationship with them and where your boundaries lie. Whatever you do though, if at any point you think this person has too much baggage or too many issues for you, end it there. Don’t lead them on into thinking you’re someone they can count on.
12. Don’t feel like it’s up to you to solve all of their problems.
You and the love you give are not the solution to your loved one’s anxiety, but it can certainly aid as a balm. They don’t expect you to solve something in their brain they don’t even understand themselves and it’s important to remember this so you don’t feel burdened. Being someone that is simply there for them and listens to what they’re going through can often be all they need to feel understood and cared for.
13. They need strong and stable relationships to truly thrive.
Relationships that are back and forth and fail to offer any real support, stability, or longevity can make them feel unable to really connect with someone. They need their partner or loved one to keep them grounded and make them feel safe.
14. They might never be like anyone else – and that’s okay!
Just because someone lives with anxiety, it doesn’t mean that their anxiety defines them, and it isn’t something that has to be seen as this great, overwhelming presence that dominates your connection with them. Be there for them. Listen to their fears, their concerns, their thoughts. Seek understanding and communicate. This person might not be like anyone else in your life but isn’t that one of the most beautiful things about loving them?