Loving someone with anxiety is tough.
It is hard to understand something we cannot see on the outside. Whether it is your partner, child, friend, parent or colleague…it makes no difference. One of the worst feelings is watching the people we love struggle and there is not a damn thing you can do to help them, at least not in that very moment. There are some things you should know, understand and practice. These will help you take care of yourself so that you can truly be there for them, in a healthy way.
When you know better, you do better. It’s important to understand anxiety is real and it is awful. It is sneaky and quiet, quick as the blink of an eye and it can completely change how someone thinks. If you’ve never experienced anxiety for yourself, it may be hard to process that one moment your loved one may be fine, even having a good time and the next thing you know, they are spiraling. The “what-if’s” are firing. Black and white and catastrophic thinking are now their lens.
When our emotions strike, our reptilian brains (emotional minds) take over. At this time, our access to logic is tough to find. It is the same when we are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. We tend to make quick decisions or, we freeze and are not be able to make a decision at all.
Anxiety comes in all shapes and forms.
Some people are struggling with anxiety attacks at the worst moments along with just a constant, underlying feeling of fear that does not often go away. Their systems are on high alert and reasoning with them becomes increasingly difficult.
“You’re okay. Just stop thinking about it. You’re over-reacting. Come on, that’s enough. You’re just trying to get your way. I can’t handle this. You’re crazy.” While you may have said one or two of these things before. I know your loved one has thought these things before. One of the most important things to understand is that it really is okay. Yes, it’s hard. It’s absolutely frustrating. It is way easier to hold empathy when you straight up see a broken bone. Remember, just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.
For loved ones, this is the moment you lean in with vulnerability.
For someone in the thick of it, experiencing anxiety, they are doing this in front of you because they feel safe and truly love you. They trust you. This is your moment to use empathy. They do not want your sympathy. Leaning in with empathy means being able to just sit with them in the discomfort. You CAN’T FIX IT, right now. Don’t try. Just be there. Sympathy is when you want to silver line it or make it better. It will make it worse; I promise. The best thing you can say in that moment is, “I’m here. I see you. I’ve got you. This is awful.” Watch the Brené Brown video on sympathy vs empathy for a great explanation.
Validating someone and sitting in the discomfort with them is difficult. In a moment of “bad anxiety” I encourage and model using sensory items. Touch (ensure the person is okay to be touched, sometimes this can be a trigger.) Smell – essential oils are amazing. Sound – soft music or even play their favorite songs. Going for a walk is great to engage several senses at once without overwhelming them. This can be helpful coping skill for both, as it is just as rattling for you trying to support them in that moment. Above all, just model these things. Don’t command them, they may not be ready to pull away and that’s okay. Just keep breathing and find your own coping skills.
Sensory tools for moments of panic and anxiety are always encouraged. Once the time has passed, encourage them to explore their anxiety and don’t forget to explore self-care and the triggers that are going on for you as well. Therapy can be extremely helpful with this. It is a privilege when you can understand the root causes and triggers and start taking back your control. You both have valid feelings in this, and it is important they are addressed.
Also, an important note- while the single best thing you can do as a loved one of someone with anxiety is to be empathetic, you also must have boundaries. There is a big difference between being supportive and being supportive without fixing. Your feelings, emotions and your story is valid. It is hard to surrender in those moments. You must keep taking care of yourself, doing things that bring you joy and solitude. Do not be afraid of saying no or not doing something they want. In fact, it gives the wrong message. Your job is to empower them, not enable. You will become resentful. If you see them as the victim, and treat them like a victim, you are covertly sending them message of, “you can’t do this, but here, let me do it for you.” They can do this, and you do not need to do it. This will hurt your relationship with them more if you always try to just save them rather than listen to them and cheer them on.
Do not judge them. Do not judge yourself.
You both are human, doing the best you can with what you have. Communication is key. Understanding anxiety, self and holding compassion for them is all you can do. Remember… relationships take work, constant work and that is also what makes them so damn meaningful in the end. Wishing you all the best. Reach out, learn, ask for help, challenge yourself and your loved one when needed and remain hopeful, people can take hold of their anxiety and regain their voice.
Sending you light and love,
~ You are worthy. You are capable. You are enough! ~