7 ways you can help a loved one with anxiety

Over the fast few months at HelloGiggles, I’ve been talking a lot about anxiety — specifically what people (like me) with anxiety want their loved ones to know, say, and never say. But what can you do to help a loved one? Watching someone you love experience immense pain is heartwrenching, and when the pain is mental rather than physical, it can be easy to feel helpless and frustrated.

It can  also be difficult to know how to navigate a situation that you may not totally understand. However, there are some things you can do to help both of you during this process. Here are a few.

Learn as much as you can about anxiety.

Read all the articles you can find on anxiety. I’m not just talking about medical articles with scientific jargon. I’m talking articles written by people who have anxiety, studies, books, documentaries, the whole shebang. The more, the better. Not only will you be more equipped to help your loved one with anxiety, but you’ll get an edge on understanding where they’re coming from. It’s a win-win for you both.

Ask your loved one what helps them the most.

Millions of people in the world have anxiety, but everyone experiences it differently. Some people may want you to stay silent; others may know a few specific phrases that could help. Some may want to be left alone, while others may be terrified of being alone.

When your loved one is calm and relaxed, gently ask them if, in the future, there’s anything you can do in particular to help during a future anxiety attack. They might not have a straight answer for you, but the gesture means more than you know.

Come up with a code word.

As you talk to the person you love about their anxiety, you may learn that there are certain triggers that may bring on an anxiety attack. However, sometimes, it can be hard to avoid these triggers in real life — and when an anxiety attack is coming on, your loved one may not be able to express it, especially in public. Come up with a random word that isn’t so random that it will confuse other people, but is distinct enough where, if your loved one says it at a gathering, you’ll know that an anxiety attack is coming and you can help come up with an excuse to get the two of you out of there, stat.

Try not to take any of it personally.

Sometimes, it can all be frustrating. That’s anxiety — a frustrating, confusing mess. It’s never a neat little package. Sometimes, your loved one may seem disinterested in activities, or want to sit inside when you were supposed to go out. But try your hardest not to take your person’s fear or outbursts personally. It affects you, but it’s not your fault, and it doesn’t have to do with you. Understand that your job isn’t to fix anything — just be there, steady, supportive.

Let your loved one know about any changes in plans in advance, when you can.

A lot of times, people with anxiety can get stressed out when plans are changed. They need time to think through situations and outcomes. But suddenly casually dropping, “Hey, by the way, I invited a bunch of extra people to your party, that’s cool right?”  can completely negate all of the thinking they’ve been doing and throw a wrench in their plans, which could trigger an anxiety attack. Help your loved one by remaining totally open.

In this example, BEFORE you’ve asked friends to come to the party, chat with the person about it. Ask them if this would be something they’d be comfortable with. Help them feel like they have some control over their worrying, and they may very well be OK with you changing plans as long as give them time to mentally prepare.

Don’t bring up their anxiety too much. . . 

Though it may seem like the right thing to do, constantly asking “How have your panic attacks been lately? Have you been feeling anxious?” won’t help. Of course, you mean well, but it will just remind your loved one of their anxiety over and over, and it could cause them to spiral. Wait for them to mention something.

. . . but make it clear that you’re always there to help if they need.

It’s OK — welcome, even — to let your loved one know that you’ll always be there to talk to them if they need, sans judgment. But once you’ve said it, make sure to follow through with it. Listen to anything they have to say, and be careful with your words. Be a steady rock just by remaining open and loving.

Odds are, you’re already a rock; people with anxiety are careful about who they trust in their lives. But these are just a few things that can help you bond even closer together through huge and scary obstacles. And they will love you for that. . . always.

(Image via Shutterstock.)

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