The suffering of people with anxiety disorders is very real and serious. The suffering of the people who live with them and love them is often overlooked. When your loved one has anxiety, it can be both tiring and frustrating. While there are hundreds or thousands of books, pamphlets, and websites dedicated to patients with psychiatric disorders, only a few resources are available for families and friends who are indirectly yet severely affected by their loved ones’ mental condition.
It’s no surprise that you are currently living a lifestyle you never intended because you are trying to accommodate a family member’s anxiety. Whether he or she is suffering from ‘everyday’ worries or a full-blown disorder, the following situations might be familiar to you.
- Constantly reassuring a loved one that everything is okay.
- Participating in strange rituals that seem strange or unnecessary such as frequent handwashing or rearranging items in a certain way
- Avoiding activities that are deemed unsafe or fearful to your loved one like riding a roller coaster or traveling by plane
- Walking on eggshells to prevent triggering an anxiety attack on your partner
- Avoiding intimacy because your partner is insecure with his or her body
- Feeling helpless when someone you love has panic attacks
- Taking on someone’s responsibilities because they are too afraid to leave the house
If you are experiencing any of these situations, you are not alone. More than 40 million Americans are suffering from a form of anxiety. When you add in partners, family members, relatives, and friends whose lives are affected by the anxiety of those they love, anxiety becomes a huge public issue.
Understanding anxiety disorder
When someone close to you is experiencing intense fear and nervousness, his or her reactions can affect your life and relationship in many ways. You may feel sad, confused, frustrated, and scared of what the future might hold. Friends and family of anxious people often cannot understand why their loved ones can’t just get over their unfounded fears and worries. They may not understand why his feelings won’t go away and might even get worse over time.
People with little understanding of what anxiety sufferers go through may be quick to judge or undermine their condition–as if an anxious person can just push a ‘stop’ button in their heads to feel normal again. Learning about mental health disorders is essential in understanding your loved one’s condition so that you’ll be prepared to handle the variety of uncomfortable (or hurtful) situations that anxiety can create in your home.
The importance of a support system
For patients, an effective support system, especially inside the family, is crucial in overcoming anxiety. But relatives and friends can also give them a sense of support and security. Here are some of the things you can do to help a family member or a friend with anxiety.
Establish an open line of communication
Good communication is an important tool to use with people who are prone to anxiety. You need to acquire good speaking and listening skills in order to have effective communication with your loved one. Avoid words that could trigger an extreme reaction such as “We need to talk.” With or without anxiety, the key qualities of effective communication are as follows:
- Both persons are able to share their feeling directly and openly, without fear of attack or retaliation from the other.
- Both can listen without being defensive when the other person is talking.
- Both remain respectful of each other when dealing with anger, conflicting opinions, or disagreement.
Encourage the person to seek medical care
Supporting someone with anxiety to seek professional help is extremely difficult, especially among people with social anxiety or social phobia. This is where good communication skills help. Start by making an appointment with the person’s GP. You could also look for a GP in your area, particularly someone with experience in psychiatric disorders. When the person agrees to book an appointment, it’s better to book a longer session or a double appointment to make the most of the consultation. After a thorough assessment and possibly a mental health treatment plan, the GP may refer the person to a psychologist, social worker, therapist, or psychiatrist to provide adequate psychological treatment. Show your support by taking part in the conversation; ask appropriate questions and provide relevant information.
Learn what to do during emergency situations
If the person your love has anxiety, you need to develop a relationship based on empathy and trust. Avoid dismissive remarks such as:
“There’ nothing to worry about.”
“It’s not that bad.”
“Everything will be fine.”
“It’s all in your head.”
Remove the person from the stressful situation or try to prevent the situation from getting worse. Stay calm and give encouraging or supportive words (“You can get through this”). Give medication if the person usually takes it during attacks. Prepare a care plan or a list of names and numbers to call in an emergency. Call for help if the person is in distress and can be a threat to someone or to himself. Make an emergency appointment with his GP if you don’t have a care plan.
Sometimes helping someone with anxiety or panic attacks can create a contagious atmosphere, and the carer may also feel anxious. Be aware of your own feelings. Keeping yourself calm, focused, and relaxed, will contribute to their recovery. If it means indulging in short relaxing activities regularly, attending support groups, or visiting a therapist, then do it. You can’t help them if you are falling to pieces. Delegate responsibilities to your family members, so you’ll have time to take a break or care for yourself. Know your limits and be realistic of what you can give. Learn where to draw the line. Loving someone doesn’t mean losing yourself.