A few years ago, after a particularly rough night, my mother looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “I don’t know how to help you. I keep saying the wrong thing.”
I can understand her pain. If I were a parent and my child were suffering, I’d be desperate to help.
One of the biggest problems concerning mental illness is the lack of guidance. Unlike a physical condition, like a stomach bug or a broken bone, there aren’t any clear instructions to guarantee recovery. Doctors can only make suggestions. Not exactly the kind of thing you want to hear when you’re desperate (trust me).
And so, the responsibility for care mainly falls on your nearest and dearest.
Over the years, I’ve had some horrendous experiences with friends and colleagues who were trying to help me but said the wrong things. At the time, I didn’t know how to advise them otherwise. Social anxiety certainly doesn’t come with a guide book!
These were some of my favorites.
“You really need to pull yourself together!”
A colleague said this to me when she found me crying in the staff toilets at an event. She thought the tough love approach would help me snap out of it. However, not only did it not help, it made me feel more embarrassed and exposed. It confirmed that I was a freak and therefore needed to hide my condition.
When faced with anxiety, the natural response from observers seems to be to encourage the person to calm down. Ironically, this only makes it worse. The sufferer is desperate to calm down, but is unable to do so.
“Don’t be silly. Everybody is too busy with their own lives to focus on you.”
A friend thought that pointing this out would relieve my irrational thoughts. Sadly not. At the time, I was worried that everyone in the room was judging me negatively. Social anxiety is an all-consuming disorder. So while deep down I knew that people weren’t focused on me, it still didn’t stop the taunting thoughts.
“Why do you feel anxious?”
This is one of the most infuriating questions, ever. But everybody close to me has asked it at least once over the years. If I knew why I felt so anxious, then surely I’d be able to find a bloody solution! Asking why only highlights how clueless I am. Still, I don’t blame them. It’s natural for humans to ask questions and try to determine what the problem is. We like to solve things.
When your friend is struggling with anxiety, don’t use comments like these. Here are five ways you can actually help them:
1. Work with their emotions
The key thing to remember is that anxiety is not a rational disorder. Therefore, a rational response will most likely not help, especially during a moment of distress. Instead, try to work with the emotions. Accept that they feel anxious and, rather than being direct, be patient and kind. Remind them that while they may feel distressed, the feeling will pass.
Work with the irrational thoughts and acknowledge that the person is worried. For example, try something like: “I can understand why you feel that way, but I can assure you that it’s just your anxiety. It isn’t real.”
2. Focus on their feelings
Don’t ask why the person is feeling anxious. Instead, ask them how they are feeling. Encourage them to list their symptoms. Give the sufferer room to feel without interruption. If they’re crying, let them cry. It’ll release the pressure faster.
3. Use distraction techniques
Perhaps suggest taking a walk, reading a book, or playing a game. When I’m having bad anxiety, my friends and I often play word games like I Spy or the Alphabet Game. This will distract the anxious brain and enable the person to calm down naturally. It’s also fun for everyone.
4. Be patient
Patience is a virtue when it comes to anxiety. Try not to lose your temper or snap at the person. Wait for the worst part of the attack to spike before taking action or trying to help the person rationalize what is happening.
5. And finally, be funny!
Laughter kills stress like water kills fire. My friends are great at making me giggle when I’m in distress. For example, if I say “I feel like everyone is watching me,” they’ll respond with something like, “They are. They must think you’re Madonna or something. You should sing, we might make some money!”
The bottom line? Anxiety is not an easy condition to deal with, but with patience, love, and understanding, there are plenty of ways to help.