Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time. However, people with anxiety disorders experience excessive and persistent worry about any number of things. Often times, it interferes with their ability to function at work, school and socially. In order to best help someone with an anxiety disorder, is important to understand their experience. Use the steps below as your roadmap to being the best support you can be.
Step 1: Understand anxiety
There are variety of anxiety disorders. Each one is unique and presents differently. Start by familiarizing yourself with the specific type of anxiety your friend or loved one is coping with.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Individuals with GAD experience excessive worrying about multiple different things, more days than not, to the point that it may interfere with their physical and mental health.
Understand the signs:
The chronic worry creates significant anxiety and physiological sensations (e.g., stomach distress, muscle tension, fatigue, heart palpitations, irritability, etc.). Individuals with GAD typically worry about topics that are concerns shared by most people but have difficulty turning off a worry and often spiral to imagining the worst-case scenario. Individuals with GAD often experience sleep difficulties (falling asleep, waking up frequently) secondary to the physical sensations brought on by worry. Individuals with GAD may have trouble trying new experiences (travel; recreational/social activities) as they have difficulty tolerating the uncertainty of not knowing exactly what to expect and/or how to “control” the situation.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Individuals with social phobia are excessively concerned with the negative judgment of others. While they remain interested in social connections, they tend to avoid social interactions to reduce their distress and discomfort. The vast majority of adults with social phobia report having experienced this worry for as long as they could remember, and typically describe having been shy and quiet during their school years.
Understand the signs:
Physical sensations accompanying anxiety (such as stomach upset, difficulty concentrating, shaking, voice trembling, and blushing) can increase fear and embarrassment in social situations. Most adults and children with social anxiety find it difficult to initiate conversations, express opinions/be assertive, speak in groups, make eye contact, tell jokes, and take risks, particularly in dating situations. In the worst cases, people with social anxiety become very isolated and depressed. In some cases, individuals with social anxiety will overextend themselves socially in order to please everyone. These people appear socially comfortable and connected, but express very little social enjoyment due to their constant need for approval by others.
Panic Attacks & Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia
Panic attacks are common in all anxiety disorders and in the general public (approximately one-third of the population has had a panic attack in the past year). However, those who suffer from panic disorder have persistent fear of having a panic attack in a situation in which they cannot escape or get help.
Understand the signs:
A panic attack is defined as the emergence of four or more physiological sensations (e.g., racing heart, dizziness, light-headedness, stomach distress, trembling, feelings of derealization) peaking in intensity within 10 minutes. Those with panic disorder typically fear a catastrophic outcome from panic attacks; for example, I am going to lose control of myself, I am going to die, I am going to go crazy, and/or I am going to embarrass myself. Often, people with Panic Disorder tend to avoid situations that might elicit a panic attack (called Agoraphobia).
Step 2. Acknowledge the Anxiety
May people with anxiety disorders may be too anxious to ask for help or support. Or they may nto even fully realize the extent to which their anxiety is impacting them!
In this case, try saying something like:
- “How are things going?”
- “It seems like there is something on your mind. Do you want to talk about it?”
- “I don’t think worries are silly. I’m not going to judge you if you tell me.”
After letting your friend or loved one know that you are ready to listen with a non-judgmental ear, be mindful of what type of further support is helpful and unhelpful.
- Listen without interrupting
- Validate their feelings
- Ask if there is anything you can do to help
- Interrupt to offer generic advice, or turn the conversation back to a similar experience you had
- Provide too much reassurance. It is better to help the anxious person acknowledge the possibility that things might not turn out in their favor, rather than reinforce the notion that the possibility is too scary to think about.
- Minimize their experience by being dismissive
Step 4. Help Find Mental Health Support
It is important to offer non-judgmental support when someone makes the decision to confide in you. However, sometimes people can try to make the most of the free support and use it to continually unload emotional burdens. This can be especially common in relationships. At the end of the day, what is most important is that the anxious person is able to find a way to help themselves. A good way to set this boundary is to offer to help them locate a mental health expert.
Scheduling an appointment with Chicago Counseling Center may be the first step among many for the battle against anxiety.