What You Need to Know About People With Anxiety

Over the weekend, I had a conversation with someone that brought to light, for me, the misunderstandings still so rampant when it comes to dealing with a person with Anxiety issues.  They are numerous, and it is frequently hard for someone not knowledgeable about anxiety to know that the actions are not deliberate, nor are they intended to inflict pain on them personally.  Living with someone  who suffers from anxiety is not easy – that’s obvious to those of us who suffer.
But our anxiety doesn’t change how we feel about you. It doesn’t mean that we are trying to push you away and it doesn’t mean that we are nasty.  The pain you feel is the pain we feel.
So, if you love someone with anxiety – your child, your parent, your sibling, your spouse, your friend or anyone else, I hope that maybe these explanations of things might help you or someone you are close to:

  • Silent treatment – We’re not giving you the silent treatment; sometimes,  we just can’t respond. We want to, but we can’t. Our heads contain a jumble of thoughts and emotions, but we just cannot get them out. It is very mentally exhausting, actually.  I have experienced this, and when I couldn’t speak, it was like a lock had been placed on my jaw.  Thoughts exploded inside my head, but I couldn’t verbalize a single one. It is as frustrating for me to not be able to make the words come out as it is for you to feel like I’m giving you the “silent treatment”. Maybe more so.
  • Anxiety is exhausting – Anxiety affects our bodies as much as it affects our minds. We live in a hyper-tense state and our minds are very rarely settled. When you are dealing with anxiety, any issue sets off your “fight or flight” response, which means that our heart starts beating faster, our breathing may become shallower, we may tremble and sweat, and our adrenalin kicks in. When it wears off, we are exhausted.  Imagine that happening to you multiple times a day, every day, and what it would do to your energy levels. In fact, ever had a week at work where you think “I need a break”? That is almost every day for someone with anxiety issues unless they have learned effective methods of dealing.  Those take time, however, and there is no foolproof method that works for every person or for every occasion.
  • We’re not lazy – we don’t avoid doing things because we just don’t feel like it, we don’t do things because what we are really feeling is fear. We are worried that we won’t do it right, or that we won’t be good enough. Worst of all, we may feel like we’re letting you down if we do something wrong.  A criticism when we have tried to do something can have an intensely negative effect the next time.  We won’t forget that you said, “You didn’t get that pan completely clean” and we will worry that, no matter how hard we try, we won’t do it right.  It is perceived as a danger by our minds and bodies, even if it really isn’t. We don’t want to fail, and avoidance isn’t failure. We’d rather avoid than have someone tell us that we’re a failure (that is our interpretation).
  • We feel like failures – this can tie into the one above, but not necessarily. If someone says something is easy, it doesn’t matter, our brain might respond, “Yeah, to you”. The thought “I can’t do that” or “I will never figure that out” is omnipresent for many of us and we feel like failures before even trying.  This is why kids who are actually good at math might not do well in math class, for example.  It doesn’t matter if we are good at something – our anxiety convinces us that we aren’t. And it isn’t just about work or school – we can feel a failure about not being able to go out, or to make a decision.  Please understand that, in these moments, when you are frustrated because of what we can’t do, nobody is more disappointed in us than we are.
  • Respect our privacy – don’t go telling other people about our illness without us having given you permission.  There is a lot of stigma out there about mental illness, and we may not be comfortable with people knowing.  That said, it’s understandable when a spouse or partner needs someone to talk to, but you should still get permission first because it is our mental health you are talking about.  We’re probably going to be okay with you telling one or two of your closest friends, but telling one or two people is not the same as telling five, or ten. This is really a massive breach of trust and privacy, and really shouldn’t need to be said. When we are ready for people to know, we’ll speak about it.  Considering the stigma surrounding it, we may want to keep it from people entirely. We are the ones who get to decide what people know.  Now, obviously, I made a decision to speak up, and speak out, but it took 18 months to reach that point. At first, I couldn’t tell anyone.  Not a soul. In fact, I think it took me a few months to tell more than my family and my best friend. I think it is safe to say that most people would prefer to keep it quiet (I have met more than a few who would rather not share their struggles with anyone). For some people, the idea of people knowing is an anxiety trigger in itself.  Imagine wanting to keep that secret then hearing about all the people who had been told and wondering who they had told, and what people now thought of you?  Do they think you’re crazy? Weak?  Do they still want to be your friend? Are they going to distance themselves from you? Are they talking about you behind your back? Are they now shutting you out of things?
    So, if you are thinking of telling people about it all without the permission of the person with the anxiety disorder, just, you know, don’t.
  • Stimuli can be overwhelming – for no apparent reason, a person with anxiety can become suddenly overwhelmed in a situation in which there would seem to be no “danger”. When I was given a weekend pass from the hospital after my breakdown, I attended my niece’s party. I had to keep leaving to go outside because the people and noise were too much for me.  This might surprise people who have seen me in such situations, but that’s the thing – the trigger could be anything, including a normal situation, and we won’t necessarily know how we will feel until we are in the situation.
  • Be kind – if you have ever been dismissive, in any way, when we have opened up, we probably are not going to open up to you again very easily. If we aren’t talking to you about our struggles, and you want us to, it’s okay to ask to have a fresh start – to say, “I have a better understanding now”.
  • Don’t take it personally – If we aren’t talking to you about things, even when you ask, please understand that, on occasion, we simply can’t. It doesn’t mean we won’t talk to you, or that we are shutting you out. Just be patient. Give us some time. Unless we’re having a panic attack, we are capable of telling you how we feel.  We will start to talk when we are ready to do so.
  • Don’t ask if we are “okay” – if we are panicking, you can see we’re not okay, and, as well-intentioned as it is, it can actually make things worse. Asking if you can help, or reminding us that you are there for us, or of some technique that has helped us before is far more effective. Even this, though, will differ from person to person, and remember this one key thing – if we ask you to leave us alone, then please do so.  We may already know how to handle it, or we may find our anxiety ratcheting up as people try to calm us down.  It’s not that we don’t appreciate your efforts, because we do.  We love you for caring and sticking by us, but, sometimes, not always, we need to get through it on our own.
  • Don’t try to make us talk – when we seem on edge about something, don’t bug us about sharing. Don’t tell us it is better to just get it out.  Sometimes, starting to talk can bring about a cascade of tears and even a panic attack.  We know when we can and can’t talk, and will gladly come to you if you say, “When you are ready, I’m here for you”.
    My family does this very well – I do not have to repeat myself.  I simply say, “I can’t talk about it right now” and they allow the conversation to move into a different direction, knowing that, eventually, the feeling that it will bring about a fit of sobbing or anger will subside and I will be able to talk and share my feelings. This is different from the point about supposed “silent treatment” – this is us telling you about something that happened, not us having a discussion with you while trying to resolve something between us.
  • We can’t just “let go”– please don’t tell us to “just let it go”. We can’t.  Our brain does not work like yours and those memories that prompted our fight or flight are called up much more quickly and easily than other memories. Science shows that the brain is seeking to make links between that traumatic memory and what we are currently experiencing, making it very, very difficult to “let go”, no matter what it is. To put it simply, our brain will not let us let it go.  It sits there in the forefront of our mind no matter what.
  • We know it is irrational – But that doesn’t mean it isn’t real. it is very real to us. We might know that answering that phone, or picking it up to make a phone call, will not be a devastating moment. But we still can’t do it. You can tell us until you are blue in the face that nothing bad will happen if we do x or y, and we cannot do it.  You can try and help us through it but we need you to drop it if we tell you we cannot do it.  I explained this before by saying it is as if my brain was involved in a boxing match.  In one corner, logic.  In the other, anxiety.  Now, logic seems the stronger and smarter of the 2, but anxiety cheats.  He pushes our fears at us, makes us start looking in the other direction – anything he can to get the upper hand.  Eventually, logic is just too exhausted to keep fighting and anxiety wins….again.
  • Know when to drop it – please don’t try to force us to do things. It just makes our anxiety worse.  Move on to something else.  Maybe, in due time, we can come back around to it again. Believe me, no one feels more disappointment about not being able to do something than we do.  Not only do we feel like we are being stupid, but we feel like we are disappointing you, too.
  • Isolation versus being aloneThese two things are absolutely not the same – when we isolate, we are shutting ourselves away to avoid experiences as much as possible. When we want to be alone, we are trying to recuperate from things that have happened.  Isolation is bad, being alone is not – it’s like a reset or a recharge on a day. We can’t shake off what we feel by doing something fun, so, by being alone,  we’re just trying to relax and reset so that tomorrow will be better. Learn to tell the difference and let us have that time. But, if we do isolate, please don’t give up on us. Sometimes, a brief moment of contact (like a text or a voicemail) that tells us that you care is what we need from you.
  • We’re not killjoys – if we cancel our plans with you, it’s not because we are trying to ruin your fun or be difficult or are avoiding you. It probably means that, on that day, we can’t do it. We don’t want to decline invitations, but we simply cannot be there at that time. It is a source of massive frustration for many of us, but one that we cannot easily overcome.
  • We can’t “rip off the band-aid” – pushing us to do something in order to “get past it” is more harmful than helpful. Anxiety is not a fleeting pain, it is an ongoing “feeling” and physical reaction and we want to come to terms with it first before doing that thing.  You may think you are helping us – you aren’t. We are now feeling forced into a situation from which we tried to remove ourselves, which makes us feel trapped and only heightens our anxiety. Now, we may have worse anxiety about that situation next time, and, we probably don’t trust you quite as much.
  • Don’t baby us – we want your help, and we are grateful for it, but don’t try to stop us from doing something because you are worried how we might react. If we want to try, that is a good thing.  It’s indicative of progress.
  • Anxiety begets anxiety – yes, we can actually experience anxiety about experiencing anxiety. Say we are in a situation that is either unfamiliar or is a situation in which we have previously experienced anxiety – well, now, we might worry that our anxiety will rear its head over the situation again, to the point where our anxiety about getting anxiety is limiting us. We’re not trying to do this and we’re not attention-seeking. We can’t help it.
  • It’s all in our heads – telling us that we need to get over it and that it is all just in our heads is like telling a drowning person that the water is all just in his lungs. You have to remember that anxiety is very real, and the feelings it creates are very real and very debilitating and overwhelming.  We don’t want to feel like this but we cannot help it.  We don’t choose to have anxiety.
  • Sometimes, we get angry – wherever anxiety is, you can be certain anger is close by.  Sometimes anger will stay in the shadows, out of sight.  But not always. Anxiety brings about irritability, which can breed anger.  And the worst part is, we’ll get angry without even realizing why, and we won’t be able to calm down.  And the more you tell us to calm down, the less likely it is that we will. More often than not, we’ll want to be left alone when this happens.  Let us go for a walk, or go to a “safe place” for us. Eventually, we will calm down and then we can talk.  We will probably also feel badly about it even though we couldn’t help it.
  • Don’t keep bringing it up – while we need you to be willing to talk to us about our struggles, it has to be on our terms. Bringing it up to us can have a negative impact and can actually help our anxiety take hold. Let us come to you when we are ready, if you can. This doesn’t mean you can never bring it up, just be mindful.
  • Encourage us – But remember, encouragement is much different than pushing. Pushing is “just do it”, encouragement is “I think that is a great idea”. Encourage us to undertake things to help us get past some anxiety. Encourage us to get “out and about”. Tell us how proud you are of what we have accomplished or are trying to accomplish.  Share in our victories and use the method of positive reinforcement to help us keep trying. We need reminding sometimes that you are in our corner.
  • Don’t ask if we wish we were “normal” – I shouldn’t have to explain this except to say that is offensive and that you are adding to the stigma of mental illnesses.
  • Don’t expect sudden & huge turnarounds – recovery and learning to deal with your anxiety takes time. You are not going to see someone get better after 1 or 2 visits to a psychiatrist, or just after getting on meds (meds, if they work for that person, take six weeks to start having an effect). Rally around us for the little improvements you see so that we can know we’re improving, too.  We will likely not see improvements the way you will.
  • It’s okay to not understand – not everyone has encountered things like this before and saying, “I don’t understand” is not a bad thing. It gives us a chance to explain it and maybe remove a little bit of the stigma.
  • Don’t try to “fix” us – It is not your job to fix us. Just love us for who we are and encourage our recovery. Actually, fixing us is not only not your job, it is also somewhat invalidating.
  • We are more than our anxiety – It is not our personality. It is not us. It’s not who we are – anxiety disorders are illnesses. That is all. We may be struggling with one or more and they will have an effect on our lives, but we are not defined by them. We can still be that funny, lovable person even as we battle our illness.
  • Sick, not weak – having an anxiety disorder is not a sign of weakness. We are sick.  That is all.  In fact, many people dealing with mental illnesses are very strong, because we face these battles daily.  On a daily basis, we do things that cause our anxiety to spike, even a little bit.  Those reactions, remember, are physical as well.  Overcoming them despite the feelings they create in us is a sign of strength.
  • Understand how grateful we are – we know how hard it can be on you. We know we make life a little more difficult at times, but we also know that your support makes our challenges that much more surmountable. Knowing you are there makes it easier. We may not say it often enough, but it is true.
    I am so incredibly grateful to my family and friends who stood by me over the last 2 years. I know I have improved greatly in that time, and their support, encouragement, and whatever else you want to call it, has helped immensely. I could not have done it without them.

In the end, our anxiety does not define us, although it is part of us.  We know that you don’t always get it, that it frequently doesn’t make sense, but your efforts to understand and to help mean everything to us. And, believe it or not, our anxiety may not always be a burden.  As we work on our recovery and bettering ourselves, we may discover that anxiety has opened up our views on things, made us look at the world in a different way.

Keep loving us.  Keep holding on.  We’re worth it.

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