How Can You Help A Friend With Anxiety? 7 Things That'll Help You Understand What They're Going Through

Andrew Zaeh for Bustle
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Having anxiety can be a lonely experience, especially if the people you love don’t have it themselves. As someone with anxiety, I don’t often talk about it with my friends, family, or partner because I often feel judged for worrying about “stupid” things or being “irrational.” The truth is, most people know their anxiety isn’t rational. And that doesn’t make it go away. Rather than dismiss our anxiety, it helps for our friends, families, and partners to empathize with it and take it seriously.

Psychotherapist Shira Burstein, LCSW tells Bustle that many people don’t understand how much their loved ones with anxiety are struggling. “Sometimes, high-functioning individuals who seem to 'have it all' struggle severely with anxiety AND depression,” she says. “Mental health issues sometimes seem 'invisible' or go under the radar because of that.” The truth is, there’s no such thing as looking or acting like you have anxiety (or any mental health issue), so you never know who around you might be struggling or how much they’re struggling unless you ask.

If you have anxiety, you’ll probably understand the following struggles. And if you don’t, reading about them may help you understand and support people you love who have anxiety.

1Being Told To “Calm Down”

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When people with anxiety are worried about something seemingly small or are generally on edge, people will sometimes tell us to calm down. They usually have good intentions — specifically, to help the anxiety go away — but all it really does is make you feel like a burden on them. How calm we are isn't always within our control, and we need to know our loved ones will accept us when we're not "calm."

2Obsessing Over Tiny Decisions

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A typical morning in the mind of someone with anxiety (aka my mind) might sound something like this: "If I go to a cafe today, it’ll take me approximately 20 minutes to get dressed and walk there. I could work in that 20 minutes, which could make me around $25. And spending money for coffee and food will cost me another $10. But if I stay home, I’ll probably want to eat the cheese and avocado I got yesterday, and replacing them will also cost around $10. And I have a Skype call tomorrow, which I’ll probably want to take from home, so maybe I should leave the house today. But my partner is coming home earlier than usual today, and I want to be here to greet him, because that means we can go to the pharmacy together before it closes. Ugh, I’ve already lost five minutes thinking about this, and 25 minutes out of my workday is another $25. Aah this is too overwhelming I’ll just stay home.”

3Thinking You’ve Resolved An Issue… Then Seeing It From Another Perspective

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The other day, I decided to go on a trip. The only thing that concerned me was that maybe the beds would be uncomfortable. Once I got reassurance that they were comfortable, I started thinking, what if there are mosquitos? I reassured myself I could bring bug spray, I thought, but what if there are snakes? When I learned there were no poisonous snakes, I decided I was OK with going there. But then I thought: what if my boss doesn’t like me missing work?

Your anxiety will show you a situation from a thousand different angles to try to convince you that you should be anxious. Usually, none of those fears are the actual reason you’re anxious. You just are.

4Choosing Between Constantly Being Anxious Or Dealing With Awful Medication Side Effects

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Meds can save lives. They can also zap your energy, sex drive, and enjoyment of sex. Unless you’re lucky enough to find meds that work for you with no crappy side effects, you often have to choose between your sanity and your ability to orgasm.

5Being Told You Don’t Seem Like You Have Anxiety

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When someone confides in you that they have anxiety, the appropriate response is not to tell them how “chill” they actually seem. When you say this, you’re implying that their struggles aren’t real. The only person who knows what’s running through someone’s head — and, therefore, the only person who can tell you if they have anxiety — is that person themselves.

6Getting Anxious About Your Anxiety

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Most people with anxiety know worrying isn’t particularly good for you, but that just tends to make us more anxious. Because can’t anxiety lead to insomnia? Or stomach ulcers? Eek!

7When Your Worst Fears Actually Turn Out To Be Justified

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It’s easy to tell yourself that your anxiety is just acting up and there’s nothing to worry about… until one of your fears actually comes true. Then, you start to wonder if every worry you have is actually some sort of psychic intuition. Or, you dismiss your concerns as mere anxiety when they were actually totally valid. You never know when you can trust yourself when you just have anxiety!

If you want to support someone going through these struggles, it helps to listen instead of invalidating their experiences. The things they’re afraid of may not be real, but the fears themselves are.