Anxiety is unpredictable, confusing and intrusive. It’s tough. Not just for the people who have it but also for the people who love them. If you are one of those people, you would know too well that the second hand experience of anxiety feels bad enough – you’d do anything to make it better for the one going through it.
Whether we struggle with anxiety, confidence, body image – whatever – there are things we all need to make the world a little bit safer, a little bit more predictable, a little less scary. We all have our list. If you love someone with anxiety, their list is likely to look a little like this:
1. They’ll talk about their anxiety when they feel ready.
In the thick of an anxiety attack, nothing will make sense, so it’s best not to ask what’s going on or if they’re OK. No, they don’t feel OK. And yes, it feels like the world is falling apart at the seams.
Ask if they want to go somewhere else – maybe somewhere quieter or more private. Don’t panic or do anything that might give them the idea that they need looking after. Go for a walk with them, or just be there. Soon it will pass and when it does, they’ll be able to talk to you about what has happened, but wait for that. Then just listen and be there.
2. They’re pretty great to have around. You’ll want them as part of your tribe.
Because of their need to stay safe and to prepare against the next time anxiety rears its head, people who struggle with anxiety will generally have a plan – and they will have worked hard to make sure it works for everyone involved, not just for themselves. They’ll make sure everything has been organized to keep everyone safe, happy, on time and out of trouble. Notice the good things they do – there are plenty. Let them know you love them because of who they are, including who they are with anxiety, not despite it.
3. Remember: anxiety is a normal physical response to a brain being a little overprotective.
There’s a primitive part of all of our brains that’s geared to sense threat. For some people, it fires up a lot sooner and with a lot less reason than it does in others. When it does, it surges the body with cortisol (the stress hormone) and adrenaline to get the body ready to run for its life or fight for it. This is the fight or flight response and it’s in everyone. The “go” button is a bit more sensitive for people with anxiety.
4. There’s a lot to know, so if you try to understand everything you can … well, that makes you kind of awesome.
It makes a difference to be able to talk about anxiety without having to explain it. On the days they don’t feel like they have it in them to talk about it, it means a lot that you just “get it.” If you’ve tried to understand everything you can about what it means to have anxiety, then that’s enough. Anxiety is hard to make sense of – people with anxiety will be the first to tell you that – but it will mean everything that you’ve tried.
5. Make sure there’s room to say “no.” And don’t take it personally.
People with anxiety are super aware of everything going on – smells, sounds, people, possibilities. It’s exhausting when your attention is drawn to so many things. Don’t take “no” personally. Just because they might not want to be doing what you’re doing, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be with you. Keep offering – don’t assume everything you offer will be met with “no” – but be understanding and “no big deal” if you aren’t taken up on your offer. They are saying no to a potential anxiety attack. Not to you.
6. Loads of lovin’ never hurt anyone, so be compassionate and there for them.
Talk up the things you love about them. There will be times that people with anxiety will feel like they are their anxiety and that they are a source of difficulty. (Who hasn’t felt like they’re making things harder than they need to be?) Specifically, I’m talking about when plans have to be changed, when you need to book a few rows back from the front row, turn the radio down, take the long way. If this is the worst you have to deal with in a friend, sign me up.
7. Anxiety has nothing to do with courage or character. Nothing at all.
Courage is feeling the edge of yourself and moving beyond it. We all have our limits, but people with anxiety are just more aware of theirs. Despite this, they are constantly facing up to the things that push against their edges. That’s courage, and people with anxiety have it in truckloads. They’re strong, intelligent and sensitive – they’ll be as sensitive to you and what you need as they are to their environment. That makes them pretty awesome to be with. They can be funny, kind, brave and spirited. Really, they’re no different than anyone else. As with everyone, the thing that trips them up sometimes (their anxiety) is also the thing that lifts them above the crowd.
8. Anxiety can change shape. It doesn’t always look the same way.
Anxiety can be slippery. Sometimes it looks the way you’d expect anxiety to look. Other times it looks cranky, depressed or frustrated. Remember this and don’t take it personally.
9. People with anxiety know their anxiety doesn’t always make sense. That’s what makes it so difficult.
Explaining there’s nothing to worry about or they should “get over it” won’t mean anything – it just won’t – because they already know this. Be understanding, calm and relaxed and above all else, just be there. Anxiety feels flighty and there’s often nothing that feels better than having someone beside you who’s grounded, available and OK to go through this with you without trying to change you.
10. Don’t try to change them.
You’ll want to give advice. But don’t. Let them know that to you, they’re absolutely fine the way they are and that you don’t need to change them or fix them. If they ask for your advice then of course, go for it. Otherwise, let them know they are enough. More than enough, actually. Just the way they are.
11. Don’t confuse their need to control their environment with their need to control you. Sometimes they look the same. They’re not.
The need to control everything that might go wrong is hard work for anxious people, and it also might make you feel controlled. See it for what it is: the need to feel safe and in control of the possibility of anxiety running the show – not the need to control you. You might get frustrated, and that’s OK; all relationships go through that. Having compassion doesn’t mean you have to go along with everything put in front of you, so talk things out gently (not critically) if you need to.
And finally …
12. Know how important you are to them.
Anyone who sticks around through the hard stuff is a keeper. People with anxiety know this. Nothing sparks a connection more than really getting someone, being there and bringing the fun into the relationship. Be the one who refuses to let anxiety suck the life out of everything. And know you’re a keeper. Yep. You are. Know they’re grateful – so grateful – for everything you do. And they love you back.
A longer version of this post originally appeared on Hey Sigmund.