What can family and friends do to help?
Watching a loved one struggle with anxiety can be very difficult. You want to help, but often don’t know what to do and can end up feeling very overwhelmed yourself. If your attempts to help are rejected or criticized, you may also feel angry or resentful. The first step you can take is to learn more about anxiety so that you have a better idea what your loved one is going through. This knowledge will help you be able to support your loved one as they start making healthier, but difficult, changes in their behaviour. The following are some strategies for family and friends that have been found to be helpful as well as some ideas of things that have been found to be unhelpful.
Many new parents are hypersensitive to feeling guilt or perceived blame. It seems to go with the territory of becoming responsible for another life that we care about so deeply. This means that we often have to be extra careful when talking about sensitive topics, such as a person’s anxiety. Conversations on these issues will be more productive if they occur when both partners are calm and feeling close and connected. It will help you both be more receptive.
- Express empathy whenever you can. This can be a very powerful way of helping your partner. It will depend on your loved one and her situation, but some examples could be, “I can see how hard this is for you”, “this would be a hard time for anyone”, “You have been dealing with so much lately”, “I love you and I have noticed that ….”.
- Remember that you can’t ‘fix’ everything. Sometimes your loved one just needs to have a warm, accepting presence. This can be from a hug or simply being willing to listen and understand them and what they are going through.
- You can respectfully share any resources you have found with them. “I read some ideas on a website on coping with anxiety. What do you think of them?” If they are interested, you can them move on to help putting these new strategies in action.
- With their permission, you can help as a coach. You can help your loved one:
- remember the benefits over time of not avoiding anxiety provoking situations
- reward themselves for positive change
- break down tasks into small steps, so that they feel it is a challenge, but they are confident they can do it.
- Create opportunities for your loved one to practice any new coping strategy, such as approaching what they are anxious about.
- Be open about your struggles and ask for guidance on what could help. “I really wish I knew how to help you feel better, but sometimes I just don’t know the right thing to do”
- Always remind yourself that facing what you fear is hard work! Often there is something in your life that you have had to work hard to overcome and you can use this experience to help you empathize.
- Practice self-care. It is normal to sometimes feel irritated or frustrated when living with someone going through high anxiety. It is often a lot of work for both of you. Remember to also look after yourself. This will include healthy eating, exercise, socializing, and making time for fun and enjoyment. Sometimes a session with a mental health professional can give you a fresh perspective and more ideas on how to communicate with and support your partner.
You can think of a relationship like a bank account. You always want to keep the back account healthy by regularly making deposits. This means putting time and energy into nourishing your relationship. The relationship then will be more resilient when the inevitable withdrawals happen.
Try not to do:
- Force your loved one to make changes before they are ready. This is sometimes hard to do as there is fine line between encouraging and pushing.
- Expect your loved one to change too quickly.
- Overly accommodating the anxiety. This can happen in a variety of ways such as following unreasonable rules (e.g., changing all clothing when entering your house) or being overly involved protecting a loved one from ‘danger’ (e.g., making their phone calls). Anxiety is like a playground bully, it gets stronger the more we give in to it. For example, you could say, “I know this will probably be really frustrating, but I don’t want to feed your anxiety and help it grow. Is there another way I can support you or help you face this?”
- Telling them to “just relax” or that they have nothing to worry about. Although when we are struggling with anxiety, we would really like these strategies to work, research tells us they simply don’t. Trying to force ourselves to relax or calm down inevitably causes us to become more anxious.