Sensible anxiety advice for supporting those you love
It can be hugely confusing and frustrating to care for a person suffering from an anxiety disorder, here are a few things that you might like to consider that may help you see their problems in a new light and give you some tips to try out that may calm them down and make your life a little easier.
For a person who does not have any anxiety or depression, watching a loved one experience anxiety can be very distressing, confusing and very frustrating! Their anxious behaviours seem irrational and over the top, they won’t listen to anyone and they try to control everything and everybody with a whole range logical (and illogical) strategies to avoid whatever makes them anxious. It is no use using logic or reason to argue with them or guide them, you have to meet them at their view of the world and then gently lead them out.
Therefore, the first step in learning how to effectively help an anxious relative is for you to understand how anxiety works and how to interrupt it.
Top tips about anxiety that all carers should know
Here are some of the basic facts about anxiety and panic that need to be understood and factored into your support regime:
1. Anxiety is a problem of thinking too much:
The body responds to what you hold in mind – and that’s just a fact! Anxious people worry too much and those thoughts tend to generate anxious emotions (of the fearful outcomes) so they have to avoid what ‘might’ happen with various avoidant behaviours, even if they are self sabotaging like not dating because they are nervous, but being miserable because they are alone. So it is important to gently help the anxious person to distract their minds and to stop catastrophising about all that could go wrong.
2. The unconscious mind hijacks the conscious mind:
The carer needs to be aware that although a lot of the anxious behaviour is learned and habitual, some of it is an unconscious response. Therefore, their body is subconsciously sabotaging them through intense physical bodily reactions and just saying ‘pull yourself together’ won’t work. In addition, these unconscious fearful emotional reactions tend to be simplistic animal responses i.e. ‘if I don’t go out I won’t get harmed.’ Carers often read too much into the strategies used by anxious people.
3. They can’t hear you when they are panicking:
As anyone who has ever tried to talk to a panicking person will know – the lights are on but nobody is home! Whatever you say will just go in one ear and out the other. There is no point using logic to try and negotiate with the panicking person (they know it’s not logical!). The best way to support a person experiencing a bout of anxiety is to keep your own emotions in-check, be calm, don’t keep talking at them – and to some extent, just let them get on with it. It is also important to not join them in their irrational avoidance games, for example if an anxious person needs to disinfect their hands with a wet wipe before eating in a restaurant, very often the people who support them do too, we would urge you to just let them do it and just say ‘no thanks’ when they offer you the wipe.
4. Help them to let go of guilt:
99% of people experiencing anxiety also experience deep levels of guilt, they feel bad that their actions are stopping others from doing things, they feel bad if they can’t work, they feel silly if they need a family member sort something out for them, therefore, as a carer, it is important to not magnify their guilt with small comments or a roll of the eyes etc. It is important to reassure them (whilst they are calm) that you are there for them and will help them, as long as they are prepared to help themselves in small ways. Negotiate with them (whilst they are calm) for example; ‘I will drive you to the xyz… on Tuesday, if you call to make the booking.’ Get them to do the activity that causes them less discomfort in return for you having to help them out.
5. Realise that all emotions are OK:
There is one simple observation that needs to be explored – a person with no anxiety seems to be OK with their emotions whether they are good or bad, they don’t like the bad emotions you might get from conflict or managing change or having to say no, however, they just ‘get on with it.’ However, an anxious person sees all negative emotions as bad and to be avoided (especially if it is associated to their main anxiety trigger) try to ensure that the anxious person does do a few things each day that makes them a little uncomfortable and encourage them to learn to be OK with those small levels of discomfort and not use the emotion as proof of danger.
6. Accept that their decision making will be impaired:
After prolonged periods of anxiety and depression a person becomes emotionally tired and their ‘gut feeling’ becomes a little numbed, good things don’t feel good and bad things don’t feel bad (only anxiety overwhelms them) the depression of this intrinsic emotional gut feeling makes it hard for them to make decisions and they will tend excessively about a problem or look to others to make decisions.
7. Their self confidence will be very low:
Self-confidence and self-esteem become easily dampened during times of emotional stress because the person feels out of control and a victim to their circumstances and emotional reactions. Therefore, it is of benefit to ensure the anxious person does continue to see friends and engage in hobbies or activities – even though they won’t feel like doing them. Where possible it can also help if they can understand that it is the anxiety disorder that is lowering their self-worth and it will recover as they do.
8. The symptom is not always the actual problem:
This is a big one! Very often, where a person first experiences a panic attack is used as the basis of the fear, for example; if a person had their first panic attack on an aeroplane they attribute the cause of it to flying – anxiety doesn’t work that way! It hijacks anything in your life that makes you leave home (it wants you to stay at home) – things like travel, work, social activities, illness and relationships. The anxiety is the symptom not the problem – the symptom comes up with unconscious hijacking strategies that try to keep you from going out i.e. ‘If I don’t go out I won’t get ill.’ The real underlying problems are a combination of poor coping strategies, thinking too much, low self-esteem, exhaustion, unresolved baggage from the past, not knowing who your are and not knowing what you want from life!
9. It takes time to recover:
Our experience shows that it takes about 4 – 6 months to effectively overcome anxiety in a way where it doesn’t return (assuming you do all the work!). It takes time, patience and determination to learn the new coping strategies and to recover from the adrenal fatigue and emotional exhaustion that anxiety induces. During this time the anxious person needs gentle encouragement and support, and importantly, an understanding from their family that the ‘new’ person who emerges will be different – they have to be different or they will relapse again in the future. As the person recovers and becomes more confident and assertive this may unsettle some of the family – our advice is let them find themselves and perhaps there are some things that you could learn about changing yourself too?
10. Anxious people can be very controlling:
Typically anxious people try to control as much as possible the things in their life which frighten them (to avoid panic situations) often they don’t realise how controlling they are and this can be very frustrating to a carer. You can read more about this here….
Are your family trapping you or helping you?
Occasionally, the carers may be (unknowingly) hindering their recovery progress – the mother who says “Poor you, don’t you worry I ‘ll do that for you” is just not helping in the right way and equally the father who says “Just pull yourself together” is not helping either. Plus, carers occasionally are getting their own needs met by having a ‘patient’ to look after and may unknowingly perpetuate the anxiety in a child or partner to give themselves a role rather than facing moving on in their own life. Or a child my resort to this victim modality to escape bullying or academic over-load from parents who pressure them to perform. Either way it makes sense to ask yourself – What is my role in their recovery? And, what will my role be when they are recovered? And ask yourself the question how will I need to change?
Learn all about anxiety and how to stop it
We believe it is just as important that the families who support an anxious person know what to do as the anxious person themselves. The Calmness in Mind Anxiety Recovery Course helps you to get a clear understanding of what anxiety is, how it operates, how you interrupt it and how you ensure it does not return. Many carers who follow this program find a lot of interesting facts that actually help themselves to worry less and remain calm in the face of external events too.
If you have to support them, make sure you are doing all you can, the right way – that just makes sense.