Ask anyone who lives with anxiety what it feels like, and chances are that person will tell you it’s indescribable.
Only people who’ve experienced it can truly understand the depths of its relentless grip. But that doesn’t mean the people around them aren’t aware of how unpredictable, intrusive, and confusing it can be.
At best, anxiety can be described as scary and debilitating, lonely and never-ending. To the outside world, someone with anxiety may look in control and high-functioning. But what can’t be seen are the racing thoughts, fear, and constant state of “what if” that invades the mind every minute of the day.
Anxiety disorders affect 40 million Americans each year. And since it’s the most common mental health illness in the U.S., it’s likely you have a loved one who lives with this debilitating condition.
It can be difficult to see those you care about facing the types of challenges anxiety can cause. But, if you love someone with anxiety, you also face the same challenges. After all, when that loved one’s world is being driven by fear, worry, and control, so is yours. Not only does anxiety becomes all-consuming for the person you love, it also affects your life.
How you can support a loved one with anxiety
“Naturally, we all want to help our loved ones, especially if they’re suffering from something as debilitating as anxiety,” says licensed psychologist and anxiety expert Jenny Yip, PsyD.
But anxiety can be overcome only by becoming resilient. Yip says that constantly reassuring your loved one won’t help that person learn to manage anxiety. Instead of springing to the rescue right away or fixing the problem immediately, Yip suggests you take a step back and allow your loved one the opportunity to face fears by themselves.
Sometimes this is easier said than done. If you share your life with someone who struggles with anxiety, then you know how difficult it can be to step back. That’s why it’s important to know what kind of support to offer.
The right kind of support
Yip says the “right” kind of support is honest support. So many of us want to say, “You’ll be fine,” or “Don’t worry about it; it will be OK” But, the truth is, this is lying.
“Placating your loved one’s worries won’t help them gain the skills needed to manage challenges,” explains Yip.
Instead, give your partner or loved one direction and help the individual problem-solve. For example, if your partner says to you, “I have my presentation at work tomorrow and I’m worried it won’t go well,” respond with, “What are the areas you feel you’re not going to do well on? What can we do to help you prepare for the presentation?”
Yip says that when loved ones feel insecure, that’s when anxiety has room to move in. She recommends guiding them to think for themselves. Don’t do the thinking for them.
Your well-being is just as important as the health of your loved one. That’s why it’s important you find ways to care for yourself.
Learn about the anxiety disorder. Take some time to educate yourself on what your loved one is dealing with. Make sure you understand the facts and ask questions if things are not clear. You may find that talking to a professional can help you work through your own thoughts and feelings.
Learn how to set boundaries. Setting boundaries can be difficult but necessary if you’re going to share your life with someone who has anxiety. Yip recommends telling yourself that “I am here for my loved one, not here to support anxiety.” When you find yourself reassuring your loved one too much or taking on the “fixer” role, remind yourself of this agreement. It will help you refocus your energy and step back from trying to make things better for them.
Put yourself first. When guiding people on how to set boundaries and practice self-care, Yip uses the metaphor of being on an airplane when you’re told to put on your own mask before helping others. “If you run out of oxygen first, there’s no way you can take care of others. It’s the same when you’re supporting a loved one with anxiety,” she says. “If you’re burnt out, neither you nor your loved one can benefit.” That’s why it’s important to take time to rest and recharge so that you can be fully present, mentally and emotionally.
Don’t give up your own life and interests. Engage in your outside interests and hobbies for a break from the stresses of your daily life. This is especially important if you live with the loved one you are supporting. Achieving balance is key to helping both of you.
Encourage professional help. Knowing when to be patient and when to push can be challenging. Yip explains that if your loved one has trouble sleeping or staying asleep, or is sleeping too much, or if the person is avoiding food altogether, or using food to cope, these are all signs the individual may be avoiding reality. She also says that losing interest in social activities or previously enjoyable hobbies are indicators of more serious problems. “If anxiety is preventing them from going to work or school, then it’s definitely time to seek professional help.”
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