I’ve been so intensely anxious that I couldn’t fathom starting conversations with strangers. I’d get so anxious about work, that I’d feel overwhelmed with anxiety from Monday to Thursday. I had a little break for Friday and half of Saturday. And then I started worrying about Monday.
The anxiety lasted all day, every day. And I even tossed and turned throughout the night.
At its worst, anxiety feels insurmountable to live with. And if you’re someone who loves another person with anxiety, you can find their worry driving you insane too. Just ask my wife.
But, anxiety doesn’t need to ruin your loved one’s life – or yours. Here’s what your anxious loved one needs from you:
1. They Need to Hear What They Don’t Like, But in A Gentle Way
When you have intense anxiety, every little thing sets you off. A confused look. Someone at work not responding to an email when they said they would. A slightly higher electric bill.
That’s all it takes to shoot an anxious person’s worry through the roof. Their whole world seems to fall apart. Yes – over stuff that small. If this goes wrong…how will everything else work out?
You naturally want to say,”You’re overreacting. This isn’t a big deal.” An anxious person responds to that with, well, a whirlwind of more anxiety.
So be honest. But not brutally honest. Calmly say,”You know, that sucks. It’s inconvenient. I’m sure it will be all right though. It’s not a big thing.”
You’ve acknowledged their anxiety. You’ve given the anxious person confidence for the future – that things will be okay. But at the same time, you’ve helped steer them toward reality – that this really isn’t a huge thing.
That’s what they need.
2. Introduce Them to Others, But Only with Their Permission
In social situations, you’ll bump into others. Introductions flow naturally. It’s totally okay to introduce your anxious loved one without their permission.
But, if they’re standing or sitting alone, don’t suggest someone they should go talk to. They’ll respond with more anxiety and feel inadequate because they can’t do it themselves.
Instead, ask them if they would like to be introduced to another person. If they agree, then go ahead. If they don’t, let it go.
If you’re concerned with your anxious loved one standing or sitting around alone, voice your concern in a calm conversation after the event. Pressing the issue during the event will only cause them more anxiety, resistance, an argument, and possibly a fight.
3. Encourage, But Don’t Push, Your Loved One to Confront Anxiety-Provoking Situations
Anxious people realize they need to take charge and do exactly what makes them anxious. But since they respond to those situations with so much anxiety, they have a hard time doing exactly what they know they need to do.
When you see your anxious loved one hesitating, let go of your urge to push them into taking action. You’ll only build resistance, and more anxiety, that way. And the next time your loved one has to take action in a situation that will cause them anxiety, they’ll want to do it even less.
Instead, motivate your loved one with,”I know this is hard for you. I know you can do it. And I’m here to help you through it. I’ve seen you do this before. And you’ll do it again.”
4. Listen Without Judgment to Help Your Loved One Let Go of Their Anxiety
When your loved one finishes an anxiety-provoking situation, talk about how it went. Open the conversation with,”How’d it go?”
Your loved one will share their story. And while they talk, listen to what really happened and compare it to what they feared would happen.
When they finish their story, share your observations. Avoid saying anything like,”See. What you’re afraid of didn’t happen.”
You’ll only provoke more anxiety by saying that.
Instead, simply compare the facts. “Remember how you thought your boss would flip out on you? It turned out you had a calm conversation.”
Let that bounce around in your loved one’s mind. They’ll realize their anxious fears didn’t come true.
But on occasion, what they fear does come true. When that happens, simply remind them they have the courage, and your support, to get through it.
5. Help Them Strategize Ways to Cope with Their Anxiety
Don’t give your loved one orders like,”Relax. Calm down. Sit still.” You’ll only increase their anxiety. Orders lead to anxious people feeling pressured and forced. They never help.
When your love one’s anxiety clearly has gone way over the top, ask,”What do you need from me to help right now?”
They’ll tell you what they want. They may ask you just to leave them alone. They may want you to hold their hand.
Whatever they ask, respect their request and do it. And if they don’t know, suggest what they might do. Suggest (but don’t order): “Maybe you could take a walk or go for a run.”
Regardless of what you offer as an idea, make sure you either know or have a high level of confidence it’s something your loved one likes to do. If they haven’t come up with a plan or list of coping mechanisms, strategize those together with them when they are in a calm state.
6. Never Allow Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms to Stand
Does your loved one smoke, drink, use weed or illegal street drugs to deal with their anxiety?
Do they watch TV or play video games all day?
Highly anxious people turn to unhealthy coping mechanisms at first because they’re not sure how to relieve their anxiety.
I used to play World of Warcraft 12 hours a day and drink way too much.
Guess what? Both only made my anxiety worse.
If your loved one turns to self-destructive habits to manage their anxiety, let them know your concerns about their behavior. These habits can easily turn into serious addictions, which can lead to jail, the end of your relationship, or even your loved one’s death. Maybe not now, but they could in the future.
You can’t control your loved one or stop them from doing what they want. But you can let them know the changes you see in who they are. You can say you’ve seen them happier in the past, and they never seem happy now.
And you can share how their behavior affects you. For example, you feel saddened and lonely because they spend all their time alone.
Sometimes you’ll get angry and frustrated. You’ll get into arguments and fights. It’s not easy.
When that happens, apologize for your behavior. But stick to voicing your concerns. If your loved one doesn’t deal with their anxiety in healthy ways, they need to feel uncomfortable about what they’re doing. This doesn’t guarantee change. But it does make it much more difficult for them to continue with what they’re doing.
Your Top Goal is to Preserve the Relationship
Helping your loved one with their anxiety isn’t easy. You’re guaranteed to not do it perfectly.
But if you remember the above guidelines, you’ll have a strong relationship with your anxious loved one. They need a relationship with you above all else because they often don’t feel worthy of love. If they felt worthy of love, they wouldn’t be so anxious.
When they feel like you’re on their side, working with them to reduce their anxiety, change becomes easier. Anxious thinking fades away. They become a calmer, happier version of themselves. And that’s something priceless you both will appreciate.