In terms of mental illness, anxiety should be one that most people have a somewhat understanding of. After all, we all get a little anxious at times, right?
Most people can relate to butterflies in the stomach and tightness in the chest right before an important meeting, an exam, or a first date. Many know what it’s like to feel a lump in the throat and your heart beat a little faster when faced with public speaking or when knowing you’re unprepared or late. These are normal situations that deserve a small amount of anxiety, but imagine facing this over and over again. It’s this constant anxiousness that many people fail to understand.
When people are faced with constant feeling of anxiousness, it’s deemed an “anxiety disorder”. An anxiety disorder is a medical condition characterised by persistent and excessive worry. It can take many forms and can interfere with a person’s ability to carry out, or take pleasure in, day-to-day life.
Anxiety disorders are thought to be caused by a number of factors, however, most people with anxiety are born with a genetic vulnerability. Personality traits and responses to stressful life events may trigger the condition or make it worse. That said, simplistic explanations for anxiety disorders, such as brain imbalances, traumatic childhood experience and poor parenting for example, do hold some merit. Anxiety disorders are often complex, and result from a multitude of biological, psychological, and social factors.
Regardless of the cause, anxiety is a tough condition to live with for both those experiencing it, and those supporting it.
Living with anxiety
For a person with anxiety, each day can be met with:
- Excessive worry about social situations
- Persistent and unrealistic worry
- Compulsions and obsessions that are hard to control
- Panic attacks
- Irrational fears
- Trouble falling and staying asleep
- Heart palpitations
- Numbness and tingling in the hands and feet
- Excess sweat
- Upset stomach
- Shortness of breath
- Muscle tension
- Chronic indigestion
- Disturbing flashbacks
When The Mighty asked readers to describe what living with anxiety was like, they were bombarded with responses from people willing to share their stories. One reader described anxiety as:
“Anxiety keeps me awake at night; it keeps me a prisoner in my home. Anxiety makes me feel like a failure; it has taken my self worth. Anxiety makes me feel uncomfortable and nervous. Anxiety has taken away friends, family, opportunities, my life”.
Another described it as:
“Anxiety is like having new tabs opening very quickly on your computer one after another and not being able to close them or stop new ones from opening - but in your head. It happens while working, taking care of kids, driving, answering questions, and a million other things that people do in the day.”
Not everyone experiences anxiety in the same way, but what all anxiety sufferers have in common is that they all require support. Help from family, friends, colleagues and health professionals might not always be the cure, but they can be a crucial part of the recovery process. Social support may moderate genetic and environmental vulnerabilities and confer resilience to stress.
So how do you support someone with anxiety?
Supporting a loved one with anxiety starts with being able to recognise the signs. Many anxiety sufferers aren’t even aware of their disorder themselves, so how you react to signs of anxiety can be a push in the right direction to getting help.
Anxiety disorders aren’t visible diseases, however if you know what you’re looking for it becomes easier to tell if your friend is just a little high strung or if they are experiencing something more intense. Because anxiety disorder is an umbrella term too, it pays to know the varying types of anxiety experienced around the world. It’s not up to you to diagnose your partner or friend, but you can point out that you’ve witnessed them struggling lately and that maybe they should look at getting some professional help.
Signs to look for include:
1. Lingering muscle tension
Limbs and jaws that ache from constant clenching is a common complaint of anxiety sufferers and some of the biggest signs of anxiety are clenched fists, tapping feet and an unwillingness to sit still. You may notice body language is often tense and jittery.
2. Shortness of breath
When the heart starts racing in times of extreme anxiousness, it can be hard to catch your breath. If you notice your friend or family member is gulping for air or complaining often of a racing heart, it could mean they’re experiencing stress.
3. Sharp reactions
A person with anxiety often leads each day as if perched right on the edge ready to strike. You may notice quick sharp-fire reactions to exterior noises or stimuli, as if they are primed ready for action.
4. Compulsive actions
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is one of the most well-recognised signs of anxiety and for those who don’t suffer from it, it can be the most confronting. If you notice your friend is compelled to engage in activities such as extreme hand washing or lock checking, it could be a sign of anxiety.
5. Poor sleep
If you roll over at night to find your partner lying awake or you’re constantly being woken by their frequent tossing and turning, your partner could be suffering from anxiety. If a friend regularly looks tired and complains of lack of sleep, this could be a sign that they’re having trouble letting things go.
Because people with anxiety are dealing with feelings of nervousness and repeated floods of adrenalin, not to mention suffering from poor sleep and tense muscles, they are often more willing to snap than those who know how to relax. Irritability can be the result of not knowing how to manage anxious thinking.
7. Exerting control
Different from obsessive compulsive, anxious people often like to exert control over their environment. Many feel that by micro-managing and controlling every aspect of their day, they can avert disaster.
8. Avoidance coping
You may notice that your friend loves to have a coffee catch up, but only if it’s with you. Throw another person into the mix and panic can set in. Anxiety sufferers often worry about social interactions, even when they are with people they’ve known for years.
Although ultimate responsibility lies with the sufferer of an anxiety disorder, you as a supporter can play an active role in their treatment. Mental health professionals are increasingly recommending couple and family-based treatment programs, that bring supporters into the mix of the recommended healing steps.
Partners, loved ones and friends can act as co-therapists, assisting the patient with homework set by a therapist. This might involve accompanying the patient into anxiety-producing situations and providing encouragement to stay there and stay calm. It could also include helping your partner or loved one adhere to a situation response behaviour as recommended by a therapist.
You can facilitate improvement and recovery by providing continuous support and encouragement and by:
- Learning about the disorder
- Listening to fears without being judgemental
- Encouraging treatment and offering to hold a hand at appointments
- Sourcing appropriate information online and locally
- Offering positive reinforcement of healthy behaviour
- Discouraging irrational fear, avoidance and compulsive rituals
- Discouraging the use of alcohol and drugs to manage the disorder
- Measuring individual improvement rather than map against standards
- Not assuming you know what your partner needs and fears
- Not dismissing fears as nonsense
- Setting specific goals that are realistic and can be achieved gradually
- Refraining from using words such as “just calm down” or “just do it and stop worrying”
- Being patient.
Recovery takes hard work and can be a slow process. It’s not only stressful for the person suffering from anxiety, but for the people who witness the pain that anxiety can cause. Anxiety can strain relationships, and many supporters admit they actually start developing low levels of anxiety themselves, brought on by a fear of not being able to help or manage a situation. Some people even find they start mimicking similar irrational fears to those they are caring for.
Being a supportive friend, partner or family member is not easy, but it’s an extremely effective way to help those you love pull themselves out of an anxiety disorder. Spend as much time with them as possible, as simply being around someone with anxiety, may be more helpful than you know. When a person living with anxiety is with others, it makes it harder to concentrate on anxieties, and offers the opportunity to switch off from negative thoughts.
Remind your loved one that you’re only a phone call away and that, if panic ever sets in, they’re free to call you and talk it over. Promise a conversation with no judgement, combined with no time restriction; being a support network means answering your phone anytime, anywhere.
Most importantly, be forgiving. A person with anxiety often has little control of their emotions and as such they can be more quick to bite. You also need to be patient, and not expect massive, immediate turnarounds. Anxiety is not as simple as finding a cure and then putting this cure into action, and pushing a person with anxiety to ‘get better fast’ can cause more harm than good. Instead, just keep the person with anxiety active and present in life. Get outdoors as much as you can, branch out into other friendship groups and create new memories that can be used as tools to cope with some of life’s everyday stresses.
It will get better
Anxiety is a treatable condition, but it can require help to get through. Remain positive, offer plenty of praise for positive change, and try not to let your disappointment show when faced with setbacks. Look forward, stay hopeful, and make sure the person knows that you get prouder with every step of the uphill battle. Have fun, and you may find your enjoyment starts seeping into the person you’re supporting.
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