Most people have experienced anxiety at least once in their lifetime. Like all other emotions, anxiety tends to pop up when appropriate – for instance, during a first date, a performance review or a frightening movie – and then gently slide into the background once the stressful event is over.
For people with clinical anxiety, however, anxiety hangs around, coloring their every thought and interaction. It doesn’t always pop up at “appropriate” times and, when it does, it’s far stronger than anything the average person needs to deal with.
Living with an anxiety disorder is a difficult, yet extraordinarily common, experience. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, approximately 40 million Americans suffer from an anxiety disorder, making it the most common mental disorder in the United States. Because anxiety disorders are so common, most people will eventually meet someone with this disorder.
Here are five ways to be a good friend to people with anxiety.
- Learn about anxiety disorders
When speaking with someone who has an anxiety disorder, it can be tempting for people to project their own experiences of anxiety onto the situation, regardless of whether or not they’ve experienced clinical anxiety before. Remember, everyone experiences some anxiety, but people with an anxiety disorder experience that anxiety in a way that is distinctly different from people who are mentally healthy.
To be a good friend to a person with an anxiety disorder, it’s important to learn as much as possible about his or her disorder. This learning can happen via documentary, book or even an Internet search. It’s also important to listen. The person with anxiety is always the expert.
- Don’t get frustrated
It can be easy to feel frustrated by people with anxiety disorders. Because their level of anxiety is so much greater than that of a normal person, their emotions can often seem absurd or out of place. “Why can’t they just calm down?” “Why are they bothered by something so small?” “What’s wrong with them?” Anxiety disorders aren’t logical – that’s what makes them disorders. For people with an anxiety disorder, their anxiety cannot be rationalized away no matter how logical the argument.
It’s important not to get frustrated when speaking with people who have anxiety. If they could choose not to have anxiety, they would.
- Encourage them to get treatment
Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only about a third of the people suffering from anxiety seek treatment. Many people are afraid to get treatment because they assume it won’t help them. They may not want to spend the money to get a therapist or they may not want to “waste time” looking for a psychiatrist. Maybe they think they can cure their anxiety on their own.
Anxiety is a real, physical condition that alters both the chemistry and structure of the brain. Refusing treatment for anxiety – especially severe anxiety – is like refusing treatment for a broken leg.
- Don’t get hurt by their anxiety
There’s a popular saying: Don’t set yourself on fire to keep someone else warm. Although people with anxiety are suffering, they should never use their anxiety as an excuse to hurt someone else.
- Provide social support
When people have a chronic illness or injury, social support can make all the difference. Do not force help upon them, but make sure to let them know that you’re there to listen. Even if you cannot understand a friend’s anxiety, it’s important to let him or her know that you’re available with a tub of ice cream and a few good movies.
Written by Courtney Lopresti, M.S. neuroscience, Sovereign Health writer