Tips on how to help a friend, your spouse/partner or another family member going through anxiety
While you are no professional therapist, it is always good to know the basics of mental health and tips on what to say (or not) to your loved one who is feeling completely overwhelmed by their anxiety
Stereotyped and treated insensitively, anxiety is one mental health condition which often makes those suffering from it, struggle to open up despite being nerve-wracking and the most common disorder which is currently on a rise especially amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and its several lockdowns. A recent report by World Health Organisation estimated that one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives while in India, the National Mental Health Survey 2015-16 revealed that nearly 15% Indian adults need active intervention for one or more mental health issues and one in 20 Indians suffers from depression.
While you are no professional therapist, it is always good to know the basics of mental health and tips on what to say (or not) before your loved one who is feeling completely overwhelmed by their anxiety. From finding it challenging to be romantically involved with someone who regularly gets lost amid the sorrows and stress that they deal with to not being able to give a clear helpful advice to a family member or be supportive of anxious friends, here are some starting points to help you figure out.
1.Hear them out instead of saying “I know what you mean. I had it too”
Anxiety is designed to put us into a mode of flight or freeze making us feel sensitive and act out by being irritable or defensive. Instead of sounding typically dominant by using phrases like “I know what you mean. I had it too” and comparing your anxiety to someone else’s, listen non-judgmentally and ask how they’re feeling and how long they’ve been feeling that way, to get them talking.
Be patient, pay attention while they talk, engage with them while they speak without using prompts like “I see” and show that you care. Since they are already feeling self-conscious about their anxiety and have a hard time opening up about it, give them reassurances, respect and powerfully show them support by hearing them out even when you can’t relate and say, “I’m always here for you.”
2.Extreme anxiety can feel consuming so do not diss them by casually saying, “Have you tried meditation/yoga?”
While any type of physical activity like breathing exercises, going to a yoga class, meditation and other pop culture anxiety trends might be helpful for some, chances are that everyone knows about these wellness hacks but has different relaxation techniques. Instead of offering unsolicited advice, ask “What can I do to help you?”
Irrespective of how silly their request seems, like “Let’s just not talk at all until I calm down”, do as they say, make them feel like they are being taken seriously and show you’re willing to offer assistance.
3.Constant “Are you okay” questions are nagging and of no help
If the person going through anxiety confided in you, do not feel pulled to “help out” or overdo the reassurance by asking for the hundredth time, “are you okay?” Instead of making them feel pressured to get better now by seeking constant updates, try to help them get out of their anxiety mode by saying, “Let’s go to a quieter place or go for a walk.”
This would give them a supportive push and help break them out of the vicious cycle of hyper-focusing on the thoughts, emotions, distressing physical sensations, panic or panicking about panic.
4.Do not shame them but be there as they experience an anxiety attack
Blaming a person for nursing depressing thoughts or shaming them in any other way for their disorder is the least bit helpful. To help neutralise a situation when they are experiencing an anxiety attack, be physically present with the person, help them concentrate on slow breathing, pay attention to what they seem to find calming, make them focus on out-breath instead of in-breath to help slow the heart rate which naturally calms the fight, flight or freeze response by distracting all of the body systems involved in it.
5. Encourage professional help but do not come across as accusatory by saying, “Why aren’t you seeing a therapist/on medication?”
No matter how smart and invested you are in dealing with your anxious partner/friend/family member, truth is you cannot fully cure their anxiety yourself. Give them all the encouragement you’re able to give in accessing a therapist. Instead of coming across as accusatory by saying, “Why aren’t you seeing a therapist/on medication?” and making them feel like they’re being judged or shamed, say, “I’ve noticed you’ve been anxious a lot lately, and I’m concerned.”
Let it come from the heart and then offer to brainstorm them with good therapists while reassuring them that they will not have to fight it alone, that it is treatable even without medication and that you’ll wait for them in the lobby during their first appointment. If they are already seeking professional help, encourage them further by engaging and sensitively asking them about what they’re learning and keep it positive by asking about their useful insights and what is working well for them.
Lastly, understand that your goal is to help only and not cure anxiety of your loved one since you are not equipped professionally. Hence, put some limits on your support and make sure to not fall into that trap yourself.
Helping someone with anxiety is not easy and you might get things wrong. Keep things in perspective and put on your own oxygen mask first in order to be truly of help for your loved ones.