Helping a Loved One with Anxiety: What to Do and What Not to Do
It is difficult to watch a loved one suffer but often we don't know what to do when anxiety is present, especially if you don't have an anxiety disorder yourself.
What Not to Say
Sometimes, well meaning family members offer advice that really doesn't help at all, and in some cases, may make the anxiety worse.
Some examples of what not to say are:
- Just relax
- Think about something happy
- Don't worry so much
- Don't think so much about _______
Although these sentiments are nice, they really are not helpful. It is hard for someone to just "turn off" their anxiety and worry. This may be possible after a great deal of practice or after treatment has been successful but for someone in the throes of anxiety, telling them not to worry is as useless as telling them you plan on taking a trip to the moon.
These types of statements may also cause the anxiety to worsen, at least for the short term. Calling attention to the family member's inability to relax or to stop worrying can increase their feelings of anxiety and cause even more stress.
What Not to Do
Another way in which we often reach out to help another person is by doing things for them. It is natural to want to be helpful but there is a limit to how much you can and should help. For example, when a family member feels he or she could not possibly go shopping without you by their side, you may choose to go. But this can help to foster the belief that shopping alone is too difficult. It creates feelings of dependency.
Being too helpful can also cause a sense that it is you, the companion, which helps to alleviate anxiety rather than finding internal mechanisms to calm anxious feelings or fend off panic attacks.
What will your family member do if you are not available to go to the store? By being helpful have you left your family member defenseless when you are not there?
Another common response to anxiety disorders is to become angry or resentful. For those without anxiety, it is hard to understand why someone is so nervous about going to the store that he or she would stay home rather than go and get needed items. You may become angry, "Just go!" or become resentful that you must carry an extra burden. Neither of these approaches are helpful and may also cause the anxiety to worsen.
How to Help
Anxiety is a treatable mental illness. Mental health professionals can help a person with anxiety live a productive life. Treatment options include medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, group therapy and individual therapy. Additional methods of dealing with anxiety include exercise, meditation and deep breathing techniques.
A qualified mental health professional can work with your family member to find the best treatment option for their situation and work to help develop self-help skills.
Helping your family member find a qualified mental health professional and seek treatment is the best thing you can do to help. Once your family member is in treatment, you can meet with the therapist or doctor to talk about what role you can play in recovery.
Learning about anxiety disorders and how they impact people's lives can be helpful. The more you understand about their illness, the better prepared you will be to help in following a treatment plan and offering the appropriate help. Your family member needs your support and understanding. With it, recovery, although difficult, can be made a little easier.
Recovering from anxiety is an individual process. It may not follow a set pattern and there may be setbacks along the way. Being supportive requires patience and acceptance.
The following may help you:
- Recognize all accomplishments, no matter how small. Let your family member know you appreciate the effort he or she has put forth. Find positive improvements no matter what, even if your family member only partially met a goal.
- Measure success based on your family member's progress rather than measuring based on "societal" standards.
- Expect stressful times to cause increased anxiety and change your expectations during these times.
- Help your family member stay on a daily routine. Structure can help to minimize anxiety symptoms. Predictability can help maintain stress levels, surprises can increase anxiety.
- Rather than assuming you know what the family member needs, ask what you can do.
Anxiety does not need to be permanently disabling. Accept that treatment may take some time and be patient as your family member goes through the steps to recovery, but don't accept or settle for permanent disability.