How to love someone who has anxiety

Who has anxiety? This girl.

“What should I say?”

I get this question a lot. It almost always comes up when I do speaking events at colleges and conferences. During the Q&A, an incredibly kind and thoughtful person stands up and says, “I don’t have anxiety, but my partner/friend/parent/kid does. How do I help them?”

I first tell them they are pretty much an angel walking around among us. They care so much that they came to a talk about someone else’s issue just so they could learn to help. I hope that a million blessings fall on their heads.

Then I say that I don’t have a one-size-fits-all answer, but I can tell them what helps me when I’m in the middle of an anxiety spiral:

Ask if there is anything you can do 

99% percent of the time, I’m going to say there is nothing you can do. But it’s going to make me feel loved and supported that you asked. And on the occasion that I really do need something (Can you bring over dinner? Meet me at the gym for a workout? Get me out of this social obligation?) I’ll know you actually mean it.

Understand that I don’t need you to fix anything

Most of the time, I just need to explain what is in my head and have someone hold my hand and say something like, “ugh, I’m sorry, that sucks.” Please know there is zero pressure on you to fix whatever is going on. And you definitely don’t need to fix me. I’m not broken. I’m just a girl with some anxiety.

Let me cry

Crying is good for me – it’s a release valve. Trying to shove those emotions down is much worse than just crying it out for a little while. If you can just sit with me through the uncomfortable ugly cry and maybe get me another Kleenex, that is incredibly meaningful.

Tell me you get it, that you’ve been here (if you really mean it)

This is a controversial one. I frequently see the advice that you shouldn’t tell a struggling person your own stories of struggle or say that you know how it feels. But personally, I love it when someone does that. It makes me feel less alone to know that other people have had to deal with this shit, too. It reminds me that things won’t always feel this hard. So use your own judgment with this one. But always make sure that you are listening first, and sharing your experience as a distant second.

Be silly with me

Lightening things up always helps me put things in perspective. Not in dismissive “it could be worse, you could be a Rohingya refugee” kind of way — but let me know we can laugh together and it’s not always about my anxiety.  Cute animal memes or cuddling up together for an Arrested Development marathon might seem frivolous, but it can help to stop the Doom Spiral.

Text to check in the next day

The “Just thinking of you and sending a hug”  text is a wonderful thing. A well-timed heart emoji has been known to turn my entire day around. For many of us with anxiety, we worry that people will decide that we’re annoying or overreacting or just too much to handle. A quick check-in lets me know that you’re still here, that my anxiety didn’t freak you out, that you love me for who I am, which is so much bigger than the anxiety. (And you know that phone anxiety is a legit thing for some of us, right? So yeah, a text is better than a call.)

It’s not easy to love someone with anxiety. So to all those friends and family members who care to learn and support us — thank you. We’re grateful from the bottom of our anxious little hearts.

**Want to read more from me about anxiety and depression? I wrote a whole book on the topic — Not Just Me: Anxiety, depression, and learning to embrace your weird. **

Have additional ideas that have been useful to you? Please leave them in the comments!

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10 thoughts on “How to love someone who has anxiety

  1. Great article Lisa. I’m one of those that don’t have anxiety, much, but love someone who does. These tips help, especially the one that says I don’t need to fix anything. I’m always trying to be the problem solver.

    On another note, I don’t have a blog or website but I occasionally need to write to get something off my chest or to sort my mind out. I admire your writing so much I felt compelled to share mine. I hope I’m not being intrusive.

    I had a conversation yesterday that although at the time I didn’t think much of it, but I guess it bothered me enough to dream about and eventually to get out of bed at 1:30 am to write about.

    I call it, “Growing Up in the North”.

    I only lived 2 blocks from my school but everyday I was nervous and afraid to walk home. I was only 6 years old at the time and had no idea what elitism and racism were, I just knew people would beat me up for fun because my skin was darker than theirs. Mom was just trying to give us a better life. We left our old home on the west side and moved into a newer place on the north side. Well, more correctly, we moved from a cockroach and mouse infested, barely standing, backyard shack with no interior walls into the smallest house in this newer subdivision. It was a tiny little wooden structure nestled between beautiful brick ranch homes three times it’s size. It was as if it had a big neon arrow above it glowing, “here we are, we’re different!” But it had walls, a bathroom and no critters. The west side was considered the poorer side of town where blacks, Mexicans and poor white people lived. The north side was middle class white folk with no minorities, that is, until we moved into the neighborhood.

    I knew I was different, not because I instinctively was aware of any differences, but more because people treated me different. That’s how I became aware. Dilbert and I grew a small friendship. We’d hang out at school despite what others would say and do. I remember one day he asked me to come over to his house after school and check out his room. I met his parents and every thing seemed to go over great. The next day Dilbert told me he couldn’t hang with me anymore. That was a short friendship.

    I grew to hate school. Unlike the other students, I had trouble concentrating in class. It seemed that as soon as I let my guard down and started getting into the subject, a spit ball to the head would snap me back into the reality of my difference. I’d get spit balls to my neck, hair and back daily. I hate spit balls. I also dreaded lunch period for fear of harassment. Over the years, my teachers told my mom that I was smart but I never applied myself. I guess I was just distracted. I hate school. I didn’t finish high school or college.

    So that’s one example of what racism looks like. That’s what elitism feels like. That was the 1960’s.

    Things gradually got better. Although I no longer experienced prejudice on a daily basis, every week or two it would raise its ugly head just to remind me – I’m different. As an adult, I didn’t see it or feel it as much. If it was at the core of an altercation, I didn’t notice it. People just knew it was wrong to be racist. At least, until recently.

    There’s been a resurgence and it seems like a new permission to show your prejudice. Even people who aren’t racist don’t seem to care because someone’s personal political agenda seems more important then stopping racist people from enacting on their hatred. After all, what is racism? It’s just a word, a harmless word.

    Little Bobby didn’t finish school because of racism. I lived in fear everyday in that nice middle class neighborhood. Weekends, I would ride my bicycle to the other side of town just to be with people that accepted me. I can’t tell you the number of times I ran away from home just to get away from that environment. But racism seems like such a harmless word.

    To this day, I doubt anyone in my past knows about the way racism helped sculpt my character. I do. I know that any form of prejudice is unacceptable. There is no agenda that is more important then treating each other with respect and decency. This isn’t a gender thing, it’s not a race thing, it’s not a sexual preference thing, it’s about the fact that we are all human beings. We are people who have common needs; survival and love. We must reject all sexual predators, racists, elitists, anti-LGBT’ers. We need to stop hiding behind religious sanctimonious hypocrisy and become truly God loving, and God loves everyone. Humanity needs us. We need to dig deep into our soul and find our instinctual love for our fellow beings. We need to do it now.

    >

    • Thanks for reading and for what you wrote. It’s beautiful, and I’m sorry you went through that. I really hope we are coming to a reckoning in this country, and things are going to shift. Because you’re right, we need to do it now.

  2. I suffered my very first anxiety attack at the age of 44, after a devastating car accident (caused by a drunk driver). Someone who doesn’t suffer from anxiety will have a difficult time understanding how debilitating anxiety can be, that feeling that the bottom is falling out of your world, and there’s nothing you can do about it. But your tips for helping someone through the anxiety are spot on, Lisa. You don’t have to fix us. We don’t want you to feel sorry for us. You just have to be there, to hold our hand or give us a hug, to let us cry and exchange our snotty Kleenexes for fresh ones, and to reassure us that, in the end, we will get through it and we’ll be able to carry on ( a cup of tea also doesn’t hurt). And yes, it’s okay to be silly too. Laughter through tears is a great tonic.

    I am soooooo lucky. I have learned coping mechanisms to help me get through most of the anxiety when it hits. And I have the most wonderful, supportive people around me. When you get talking to people, you find out that anxiety issues are far more common than you’d think. People you would least suspect are doing their best to cope with anxiety, in one way or another, whether it be through meditation, yoga, exercise or, yes, even medication. There is no one-size-fits-all remedy.

    Keep doing what you’re doing, Lisa. Keep spreading the word in your thoughtful, caring way. You are awesome!

    • Thanks for this, Cheryl. I’m glad you’ve got good tools that help. And a big yes to the cup of tea. 🙂
      I appreciate your kind words – I will keep doing what I’m doing! Thanks for reading.

  3. Oh man. For no real reasons today, I had two attacks. One in the morning and another while at work in the afternoon. The second was so frustrating, and I stole away to the bathroom to try and hide it. But I took longer than a manager expected and he mentioned it as I came back. I told him briefly what had happened. For all the talking we’ve done at work, I had never told him anything about my mental health. It was frustrating. And I thought of this post off and on today, as I am now anxious as to how people perceive me at work knowing a little about my health. Anxiety is the worst.

    • Sorry you went through that. I know how hard it can be to have panic strike in public. I highly doubt that you are the only person in your workplace who deals with this, so try not to worry too much about what other people think of you. You may have actually inspired someone with your willingness to be open about it…

      • I know I’m not the only one, and maybe you’re right. I’m just always very careful about divulging that sort of info to co-workers or managers. But in this case, I had little choice. Felt like I needed an explanation for taking too long and I always err on honesty.

  4. It was great to read your insights for helping with anxiety. I think asking if there’s any way to help is the best start. I’ve also been taught not to say ‘I know how you feel’ or to tell a similar experience. Even if you experienced a similar problem in the past, it’s not always the best time to tell that whole story when someone else is having their own crisis right now.

    Just about 2 weeks ago I heard a story on the radio about a guy trying to talk to his friend about how his son was in a bad car accident several states away from home but was okay. He said his friend immediately started talking about his own car accident from 5 years ago. He felt like his friend really didn’t care about hearing what was happening to his son and his emotions. The next day he pointed this out to his friend and he really felt bad for making that moment about himself instead of asking the dad how he was doing. I think I’m often guilty of acting this way too and will try to be better in the future.

    I’m the guy who said thank you for your website a few months ago. Our farm winery is off to a good start and the goats are happy and warm for the winter and getting ready to chow-down on leftover Christmas trees (their favorite snack food).

    Hope you are having a low-anxiety day or if not this message lets you know your emails are appreciated.

    Drew

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