With anxiety being the second most prevalent mental illness affecting the UK population, chances are you know someone who is, has, or will, experience it. So how can you best support them?
And beyond those directly experiencing the impact of anxiety, are the wealth of family members, friends, colleagues and people around individuals with the condition whose lives are also affected by this mental illness.
For those people who want nothing more than to make their loved one smile again and feel comfortable, supporting them through their anxiety can feel a little scary and overwhelming at times.
This article is for the supporters, the loved ones, the family and friends that see anxiety every day, by sharing four strategies that you can implement, from today, and start feeling like your efforts and love are having a positive impact and purpose when facing anxiety.
1. Don’t fill the silence
It is a natural instinct to want to fill the silence when someone is upset. Feeling like you should have all the answers and know just what to say, in that very moment. When your loved one is experiencing anxiety, they want to feel that they’re being heard, that someone cares, and that they’re not alone.
Being fully present is the best gift you can give. Knowing that they can share openly, cry honestly, and explain all of the irrational and controlling thoughts that pass through their mind, is priceless in that moment. Saying nothing can and does hold just as much impact, which can be better than saying lots of things in a panic and with uncertainty.
Giving reassurance and verbal prompts is enough to provide your loved one the reminder of security:
- “I am here.”
- “You are not on your own.”
- “We can work through this together.”
- “Just breathe, I am with you.”
- “We will get through this.”
These statements have no emphasis on the current situation, the anxiety itself, or distract from that very circumstance. You mean them all, they are all true, and you can say them with conviction and love. These words are so powerful and mean so much to your loved one, instead of questions, comments and statements that relate to their actual thoughts – which they will know are irrational or extreme, because the anxiety is talking!
2. Physical contact
Physical contact speaks so much louder than words when anxiety is present. That physical touch automatically reminds your loved one of some fundamental truths.
- You are there and they are not alone
- They are in the present, and can be grounded and brought back to that space
It can be easy to want to cuddle your loved one and hold them until the emotion and anxiety fades. However, the most effective way to support them is to show physical contact in a way that still allows your loved one to freely express their emotions, without feeling the need to stop so that you don’t worry for them. Holding their hand, stroking their back, or placing your hand on their leg or neck, is a physical sign that you are there for comfort, but you are not going into “protection mode”, which can innately make the loved one feel guilty for making you feel bad or worried for them.
3. It isn’t personal
If your loved one has expressed their need to be alone – grant them this. Create a time limit with them, and say that you will come back in five minutes, 10 minutes, or any time that is comfortable for you, and try again.
Sometimes they will just need time to get “the worst” out, and feel they can do so without guilt or judgement.
As long as you create a time limit, you and they know there is an endpoint. Your loved one knows they won’t be alone for too long, and you can prepare to offer support, as well as respect their need for space if they request it.
4. Honesty and rationalisations
Always be honest.If you don’t know what to say, tell your loved one that. The last thing they need is to feel like you are just there because you feel obliged. By being your genuine self, being open, honest and real, they will find comfort in this and know that your care is authentic and this is something you can work through together.
Ensure you always create rational thoughts for your loved one, when they are least able to create them for themselves.
When they make statements like “I will never feel better”, “I just can’t see a way forward from this feeling”, or “Why is it always me?”, you will need to step in and become their voice of reason. Remind them of their progress, their successes, their good days and happy memories, their value, their relationships, their strength. Remind them that every emotion fades and this one will too. It is OK to take time to feel down, but always remember you will get back up and feel better.
These conversations are honest, but also rational, and your loved one will need this in bucket loads at times, so be sure to become the grounding force for them during those times.