What Your Friend With Anxiety Wants You To Know

by Caitlin Flynn

If you're dealing with anxiety disorder or any other mental health condition, it is decidedly a huge struggle that impacts many aspects of your life. But while coping with anxiety when you suffer from it can be a challenge, it can also be tough for our friends, family members, and loved ones — especially since, for some people with the disorder, panic attacks and episodes of intense anxiety can seemingly come out of nowhere. I've seen people who desperately want to help an anxious friend feel guilty and helpless because they can't immediately talk someone down from their racing, irrational thoughts. However, just because you can't instantly save us from a tough episode doesn't mean you can't be a huge help — there are certain things you can do and not do that will really help your friend with anxiety.

While you shouldn't invalidate anyone's thoughts or feelings about their mental illness, anxiety is like any other health condition, mental or physical — if your friend isn't working on the problem on their own, it's OK to give them a kind but firm push to get help for their anxiety. Encourage them to talk with their primary care doctor about finding a therapist and getting treatment. Anxiety disorder isn't curable, but therapy, medication, or a combination of the two can be hugely beneficial.

Another thing that's incredibly helpful is the support of good friends. If you're unsure of how to help your friend with anxiety, here are seven important things to know:

1. It's Not A Bid For Attention

Some people think that panic attacks and other displays of anxiety are just cries for attention, rather than real mental health issues. This could not be further from the truth. No one "wants" to have a physical or mental illness, and we don't just wake up one morning and decide to develop anxiety disorder because we think it would be a fun way to get attention. If someone is having a panic attack, it does sometimes bring attention to them — but that attention generally feels really humiliating and is actually the last thing we want.

We know that it's really tough to understand our thought patterns if you've never dealt with anxiety yourself — but please never invalidate your friend's health problem by simply chalking it up as a bid for attention.

2. We Realize Many Of Our Thought Patterns Are Irrational

One of the most frustrating things about having anxiety disorder is that many of our phobias are irrational — or they're super elevated emotions relating to little things that many other people just get mildly nervous about. And we're completely aware of that; in fact, we anxiety sufferers spend a whole lot of time trying to reason with ourselves and think about ways to cope with the role that irrational fear plays in our lives.

So, we don't need our friends to point out the obvious, like that we're panicking over things that don't make a whole lot of sense. That being said, I've found that it's helpful when friends and therapists challenge some of my thought patterns in a compassionate manner — especially if I'm having serious anxiety over something specific. For example, if your friend is convinced that a small mistake at work is going to get them fired, it can be helpful to gently remind them that they have a good track record on the job, everyone makes the occasional mistake, and hey, you've made errors too and it wasn't a great feeling, but you and your career survived. If you can point out irrationality in a way that is supportive, not invalidating, it can be a great help. As Pamela Wiegartz, Ph.D. wrote in Psychology Today, "While high levels of anger, hostility or criticism are almost always detrimental, some studies have found that focused criticism—criticism that is not globally rejecting of the person—may actually result in improved outcomes" for people with anxiety.

3. It's More Than OK To Ask Questions

We don't expect you to immediately understand everything about the illness. Asking questions (in a thoughtful, nonjudgmental manner, of course) shows that you care and that you want to understand as much as possible. Although people who haven't experienced anxiety firsthand are never going to know exactly what it feels like, asking questions is a great way to gain insight and be better equipped to offer support when we're going through a panic attack or just a generally rough episode. And learning about the anxiety is recommended for people supporting friends and loved ones with anxiety — the Anxiety and Depression Association of America says that "[u]nderstanding what your friend or relative is going through will help you give support, as well as keep your worry under control."

4. Don't Share Info About Our Illness Unless We've Said It's OK

In an ideal world, there wouldn't be any stigma against anxiety disorder. But since there is, many people are hesitant to open up to anyone about their illness. If we tell you about our struggle, it means we trust you to be respectful about both the disorder and our right to privacy. While some people are very open about their condition, others choose not to be and that is 100 percent their prerogative.

So, if you have mutual friends, don't just assume that your friend's anxiety is common knowledge and freely bring it up. I understand that sometimes friends may want to discuss a mutual friend's problem because they're concerned and want to brainstorm ways to help — but you should definitely check in with your friend first to make sure they're cool with you bringing it up. Ask them who else knows and find out how open they've been with their other friends and family members.

What if they tell you that you're the only friend they've opened up to? While it's flattering to be the most trusted pal, I'm sure it may also feel a bit overwhelming and like it's a huge responsibility for you. If you need to talk to someone else or seek advice, I would suggest talking to a friend or family member who doesn't know your friend at all. Anxiety disorder is common, and I'm sure you can find someone who can offer insight without betraying the trust of your friend.

5. We Want You To Take Care Of Yourself, Too

Some of the most amazing friends are incredibly empathetic and natural caretakers — and they're probably going to be the ones we confide in first about our problems with anxiety, because we know they'll offer support and compassion. Part of a close friendship is sharing each other's pain and joy. But it's also OK to establish boundaries that will ensure you don't end up drained, exhausted, and feeling like you're responsible for your friend's day-to-day functioning.

If a friend consistently calls you 10 times a day because they need to be talked off a ledge, you shouldn't feel obligated to take every single phone call and let your workday and other social outings be disrupted all the time. No matter how much of a saint you are, you could understandably end up feeling resentful — and that would take a toll on the friendship. Just remember that your support is invaluable, but it's not your job to fix everything for your friend. It's perfectly acceptable to establish boundaries — for example, to explain that you can't really take personal phone calls during the workday, but you're happy to check in once you're home for the night and have had a little time to unwind.

6. It's Helpful To Check In During Rough Times

Everyone deals with their mental struggles differently — some people may call their friends a lot during tough episodes, while others will hide away because they don't want to feel like a burden. If your friend falls into the latter category, try to identify their patterns. Do they tend to disappear when their anxiety is at its peak? If so, they'll really appreciate it if you make the effort to reach out and see how they're doing. As Australian mental health support site Reach Out notes, "Be prepared to offer your help several times, without being overly intrusive or overwhelming. Be clear you want to help them because you care." If they tell you they don't want to go out because it's simply too overwhelming at the moment, offer to have a quiet night in with them. They'll really appreciate the companionship and, more importantly, the fact that you went out of your way to plan some low-key social time.

7. Your Support Means The World

We know our struggles affect you, too. Unfortunately, many people with mental illnesses have had friends bail on them because they just don't want to deal with the ups and downs. So a friend who sticks around, makes sure to get educated about the condition, and goes out of their way to help in small and big ways means the world to us. You don't need to understand every emotion or always know the right thing to say — you're making a huge difference simply by being there for us and being a supportive, nonjudgmental friend.

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