How I've learned to survive long-distance friendship as someone who struggles with anxiety
When it comes to navigating long-term relationships, we spend a lot of time discussing the ways romance changes when a geographical barrier separates partners. We talk about how we test the strength of our love through the tensions that arise when space and different time zones come between a romantic bond. To that effect, there are hundreds of articles online that offer ways to maintain long-distance relationships, particularly when partners live with anxiety disorders.
What we don’t spend enough time talking about, however, is what happens when a platonic friendship becomes long-distance.
Managing long-distance friendship is hard, and as with all relationships, mental illness makes navigating them all the more difficult.
When my roommate moved to India after we had spent almost every day together for the past two years, the nine-and-a-half hours time difference was a huge change for us. I quickly discovered that if we didn't communicate our needs and expectations with one another regularly, the newfound distance had the potential to put a lot of unnecessary strain on our relationship. Due to the strength of our friendship and my friend's supportive nature, however, we were able overcome this obstacle in a way that was healthy and productive.
Here are a few tips I picked up along the way that helped me to manage my anxiety and the 12,000 km between us.
Recognize that a geographical barrier will change the way that you communicate but not the way that you feel about each other.
It's easy to get caught up in the insecurities that manifest themselves when you're no longer in the same timezone as one of your best friends. Depending on how far away this person is from you, it can be difficult to even find a time when you're both awake, never mind available to chat. Remember that just because you aren't speaking with them as often or as frequently as you used to, they haven't forgotten about you and they most certainly still love you. They miss you and need you just as much as you do them.
That being said, communication is key.
In my experience, it helps to verbalize how you feel about your friend as often as you need to so that you feel validated and secure in the relationship. In order to do so, it's important to make time for each other — it helps to minimize those feelings of inadequacy that anxiety is likely to create. Figure out each other's schedules and try to coordinate times when you are both able to talk to each other.
Due to the nature of instant messaging, I prefer video/audio calling over texting. Miscommunications often arise in written texts, and I've found that my anxiety only exacerbates this issue. I have a tendency to really read into messages, and after overanalyzing what was intended to be a simple text, I often find myself wondering why my friend hates me. (Why did she use a period instead of an exclamation point?) Being able to hear her voice and see her facial expressions over video can greatly minimize this overthinking and easily clear up any miscommunications. I also find listening to a loved one's voice after time apart to be quite soothing.
Be cognizant, however, of the fact that audio and video calling makes certain people quite anxious — in which case instant messaging might offer your friend this same relief. Talk with your friend and figure out which type of communication works best for both of you to ensure that both parties are comfortable.
Talk to your friend about using thoughtful language and avoiding anxiety-triggering statements.
It's always important to be mindful of our words and the way that we use them. Certain phrases have the potential to inflict a lot of harm on those of us who struggle with this mental illness.
For example, if you contact your friend and they know that it'll be a while before they're able to get back to you, it can be useful for them to send something along the lines of, "I got your message, but I'm really busy at the moment and I will respond as soon as I get a chance!" so you understand that they're not intentionally ignoring your message. Although your friend may think it's glaringly obvious that they simply have other things to do before texting back, you can explain that, as a person who suffers from anxiety, you often perceive this as someone actively avoiding you. Anxious people have a tendency to take slow responses as a form of rejection or as an expression of anger, which is why a quick note letting us know that you'll get back to us soon as you can will go a long way.
When a friend has something important they'd like to discuss, they might prefer talking about it over the phone rather than via text. Let them know that instead of saying, "Hey, can you call me?" you'd prefer it if they mentioned the general topic or nature of the conversation. That way, you don't have to spend the entire time leading up to the call assuming the worst case scenario.
When we get trapped in these mindsets, it becomes difficult to look at these situations pragmatically because we are consumed by a very illogical and negative thought process.
We'll assume they're calling to say that they don't want to be in this friendship anymore, when in reality, they just wanted to share some good news they're too excited to text us.
This all may seem trivial and unnecessary to someone who doesn't struggle with anxiety, but they are extremely helpful when it comes to soothing a worried mind. Learn what your triggers are, and be vocal about them to your long-distance friend — there's a good chance they have no idea how their choice of words affects you.
Learn how and when to ask for help when you need it, but remember that they need to take care of themselves, too.
Being in a long-distance friendship is hard. As with any other kind of relationship, however, it's important to communicate openly and establish boundaries. Someone who suffers from anxiety has specific needs in a friendship, but that doesn't mean that their expectations must always take priority. While we appreciate support and validation from our long-distance friends when we struggle to manage our anxiety, it's important to be aware of how our behavior impacts them.
They are your friend, not your therapist — the onus is on you to seek external professional mental healthcare services should you need the help.
The first step in learning to overcome anxiety is recognizing the problem. While your long-distance friend will reassure you that they want to help you in any way they can, this will often come in the form of validation and reassurance — which is immensely helpful, but not enough to treat an anxiety disorder. Taking the measures to address mental illness can be terrifying, but both you — and your friend — will be extremely grateful for it. And no matter how far away your long-distance friend may be, they'll always be rooting for you; they're only one message away, ready to listen and support you during every step you take.