Understanding anxiety can help you support your loved ones without making them more anxious.
My (now-husband) didn’t want my name to be included in the answering machine greeting when I moved in 2001. Due to our large age gap and similar-sex relationship, she was understandably worried about her parents’ reactions to me moving in. She kept the information from them for several months. Although I felt compassion for her and her circumstances, I also felt frustrated by her anxiety. I hated acting like we had something to hide.
These scenarios are typical for someone who is suffering from anxiety. You may find your loved one so afraid they are unable to take action or acting in a way that is inconsiderate or increases their anxiety. It could be a boyfriend who puts off important discussions or tasks, a friend complaining of being lonely and refusing to date, or a boss who always thinks about what might go wrong. This can make everyone miserable. It can be difficult to observe anxiety in someone you love, and even more so if their anxiety triggers your own.
What can you do for anxious people?
Understanding that anxiety is not a defect, but a normal human trait, is the first step. Anxiety is a normal human emotion. It helps us to recognize potential dangers, keeps us alert for being tricked, and it’s something that most people experience from time to time. Although anxiety can seem like a fault it is actually a good thing to have people who are more cautious and think more about what could happen.
- Understanding the differences between anxiety manifestations
Evolution has wired us to react to fear with fight, flight or freeze. Depending on the person, one of these responses may prevail. My spouse, for example, tends to freeze and will rather bury her head in sand than deal with stressful situations. If I feel stressed, I tend to be more aggressive and I can become hyper-perfectionist, irritable, or dogmatic.
Understanding that anxiety is designed for us to be in a state of threat sensitivity makes it easier to understand and show compassion for someone who is acting out defensively or scared. You can help by paying more attention to the anxiety patterns of those you love.
- Your support should be matched to their attachment style and preferences
It is better to ask people what kind of support they would prefer than just guessing! Research has shown that those with an avoidant attachment style, which is typically people who have had to reject caregiving or relationships in their past, are more likely to receive concrete support. This could be helping an anxious person to break down difficult tasks or to talk through specific options for dealing with a difficult situation like responding to an angry email. However, they should still respect their autonomy and independence.
Others are more likely than others to seek emotional support, particularly those who are secure attached or have a “preoccupied attachment style” due to fear of being abandoned. These people respond well to affirmations that they are part of a tight group, such as a supporter saying, “This will be tough, but we love one another and we’ll get it through it.”
- Use any insight they may have about their anxiety to help you find ways to use it.
You can help your loved one spot anxiety-driven behaviors if they have insight. It is helpful for me to be able to tell my spouse when I am being fussy or irritable about my anxiety at work. We can spot each other’s bad habits because we are so familiar with each other’s behavior and have a trusting relationship. This is not always met with grace but it sinks in nonetheless.
It’s best to get their permission before you do. People with insight into anxiety may still feel the need to “give in to” their anxious thoughts. A person suffering from anxiety may know that it is not necessary to visit the doctor every week for multiple testing, but they cannot help their anxious thoughts. It’s best to encourage your loved one to consult a psychologist who specializes on anxiety treatment.
- Help someone anxious to calm down.
It will make you a better support person by learning about cognitive-behavioral models for anxiety. This can be done by reading or attending therapy sessions with your loved one. You might also consider these techniques for people with anxiety.
Anxious people tend to think about the worst case scenarios more often than they should. Cognitive therapy can be used to help people see the bigger picture. Ask them three questions.
- What could be worse?
- What is the best thing that could possibly happen?
- Which is the most likely or realistic?
If your loved one is worried that they have not heard from their parents in hours, suggest they think of the worst, best and most likely reasons for this absence.
Be careful not to assure your loved one too much that they won’t be afraid. It is better to stress their ability to cope. You could, for example, tell someone who is worried about having panic attacks on a plane that they would deal with it. It’s also a good idea to remind them that they can only control their own responses and cannot be held responsible for others’.
- Offer support but don’t overtake
Anxiety is one of the main features. We may feel compelled to help our avoidant loved ones, but inadvertently fuel their avoidance. If your anxious roommate finds phone calls stressful, and you do this for them, it will not be a sign that they are avoiding you.
It is important to remember that support does not mean doing anything for someone else. If they arrange the appointment, you might offer to go along to a first session of therapy with your loved one. You might also brainstorm options for them to choose from, but they can choose.
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One exception is when severe depression and anxiety are present. They may need help to get out of bed if they are unable to do so. Sometimes, loved ones can be so engulfed by anxiety that they need extra help to get the job done. It’s better to support in less severe situations than trying to reassure or take over.