Talking to Your Family About Your Anxiety Disorder

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • It's almost here. The holiday season. For many with anxiety disorders, this time of the year is scary. There are holiday parties you are expected to attend, especially Thanksgiving Day dinner and Christmas get-togethers. But your anxiety sometimes gets the best of you, you become fearful of having a panic attack and are nervous and agitated or avoid the party all together and stay home, feeling lonely and miserable. Instead, talk to your family about what anxiety means, how it affects you and what your family members can do if you experience a panic or anxiety attack. This might not take your anxiety away but you will feel more secure and safe knowing at least some family members are there to help if your fears begin to take over.

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    Who to Tell

    You probably don't want to call a large family meeting. This would require you to stand up and speak about your anxiety in front of a crowd and might make you very uncomfortable. Instead, choose a few relatives you feel comfortable with and you feel won't judge your. Invite these relatives to your home, where you feel safe and secure.

    Start by sharing with these few people. You should have selected those that will accept your diagnosis and offer to help you on a daily basis and when you are attending family functions.

    What to Explain

    Anxiety is difficult to explain. You become fearful. You might sometimes feel like you can't breath or are having a heart attack.  You sometimes cannot face being around people. Even so, you can't explain why you are fearful or what causes your symptoms because they can appear out of nowhere.

    I once heard someone (sorry for the lack of appropriate reference as I do not remember where I heard this) explain anxiety as a house or car alarm, going off for no reason, in other words, a false alarm. Even though there was no cause for the alarm, it continuing going off until someone attended to it. Your anxiety is a lot like that. Anxiety attacks are false alarms. Even so, there are physical and emotional symptoms that accompany your anxiety, just as there are loud noises that come with a car or house alarm. Your anxiety symptoms must be addressed and attended to before they will go away in the same way as the house or car alarm must be turned off. But the similarities between a false house or car alarm and an anxiety attack end there. It is easy to push a few buttons and turn off the alarm. It is not as easy to turn off an anxiety attack.

    Once you explain what anxiety is, you want to explain that each person can experience symptoms of anxiety differently. One person might have trouble breathing, another might have chest pain. Talk to your family members about how your major symptoms. What does your anxiety attack look like? Below are some of the major symptoms to help you. List those that you experience most often when anxious.

    • heart palpitations, pounding in the chest, chest pains, feeling like you are having a heart attack
    • sweating, you might only have sweaty palms or you could perspire a great deal when nervous
    • shaking
    • shortness of breath, feeling like you can't breath, or feeling like you are choking on something
    • nausea, diarrhea or abdominal pains
    • becoming dizzy, feeling like you are going to faint, being light-headed
    • feeling disassociated from your surroundings, as if you are watching a movie but not a part of it
    • thinking you are going to die or that you have some terrible illness
    • feeling as if you are going crazy, thinking you are literally going to lose control of your mind
    • numbness or tingling in arms and legs

    You may have different or additional symptoms of anxiety. Write down what symptoms you experience most often. This should help your family members understand what you are going through when you become anxious. Let them know these are common symptoms of anxiety disorders.

    During a panic attack, especially if a family member has not been around when you became anxious, it can appear as if you are in real physical distress. A family member may want to rush you to the emergency room of the nearest hospital. This is why it is important for them to understand what a typical panic attack looks like. If these are the symptoms you are describing, you probably don't need to go to the hospital. However, if you are describing symptoms different than those you listed as typical, it might be necessary to go to the emergency room. Your family members, once they understand your anxiety, can help you in deciding what the right course of action is.

    What You Do to Help Yourself

    When explaining your anxiety symptoms, it may also be helpful to explain what strategies you use to help calm yourself during a panic attack. Do you use deep breathing techniques? Do you find a quiet place to sit calmly for a few minutes?

    Understanding how you manage your panic attacks can give family members the ability to help you. For example, if you need to find a quiet place to sit and be alone, when your family member notices your anxiety, or you give a signal that you are becoming anxious, he or she can quietly walk with you to find a quiet room. You can feel safe and secure knowing this family member is with you, without judging you.

    What You Want Them to Do

    Before explaining your anxiety disorder to your relatives, think about what they could do to help you during an anxiety attack. Imagine yourself at a family dinner and you begin to feel panicky. What types of behaviors would help you? Sharing this type of information gives your family members concrete ideas and suggestions to be supportive of you. The following are some ideas that may be helpful:

    • Don't ask me to "Get over it" or "Grow up" or "Get a grip." If I could do that, I would have done it long ago. There is no switch to turn anxiety off. Instead, let me know you are there if I need assistance.
    • Even though you may think you know what I need, please ask. Don't assume you are correct. I will tell you what will be helpful.
    • Don't panic every time I panic. I need someone who is in control to help me feel in control.
    • Be encouraging without being pushy.
    • Help me remember my achievements. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by my anxiety and don't take the time to see the good in what I have done. Even when I take baby-steps in my recovery, applaud my success and encourage me to do the same.
    • Don't let me sit home, avoiding life and family. Offer to be by my side and give me encouragement, without treating me like a baby.
    • Don't give up those activities which bring you joy and satisfaction in order to watch over me. We will both end up resenting each other.

    Although most of your explanations will be specific to you, it might be helpful to have a few books or printed articles about anxiety. Make a list of helpful websites (hopefully you will include they can go to for further information. Be sure to answer their questions as honestly as you can. In the end, it will feel liberating to know you don't need to hide your anxiety and can enjoy family gatherings because you know there is support available to you when you need it.


    "Anxiety Disorders", National Institute of Mental Health

    "Anxiety Disorders", Jess Rowney, Teresa Hermida, Donald Malone, The Cleveland Clinic

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Published On: November 22, 2010