I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Generalized Anxiety Disorder is defined as: “persistent and excessive worry about a number of different things. Individuals with GAD find it difficult to control their worry. They may worry more than seems warranted about actual events or may expect the worst even when there is no apparent reason for concern.”
To me, this means that I feel anxious all the time.
To some, living with generalized anxiety may feel like you’re worrying about everything or something all the time. For as far back as my memory can take me, I’ve always been a shy and quiet person. My mother would always tell me stories about my early childhood that supported this. In any unfamiliar setting, talking or smiling were impossible. In my baby pictures, worry was a more common expression than a more typical childlike joy.
For most of my life, I didn’t even know I was anxious.
However, I always felt uneasy. As I got older, classmates asked why I was so quiet, and the worst was when they asked why my hands shook. It became obvious that something was up, but I didn’t know what it was. I assumed I was just a shy person and left it at that.
Yet my anxiety got worse with every new question directed at my symptoms. In middle school, my grades were so bad from the anxiety that I asked my parents to homeschool me. My parents weren’t convinced. I started my freshman year of high school two years later and my grades weren’t improving. My parents decided to revisit my request to be homeschooled.
No one knew I was anxious, not even myself.
I was in such distress during my classes that I couldn’t think about anything else but “Is everyone staring at me?” or “I can’t fuck up or everyone will laugh”. When you’re thinking those thoughts during the entire class period, straight F’s will soon follow. I went on to be homeschooled starting from my sophomore through senior year of high school in hopes of better grades.
Now that I’m an adult and a high school graduate, I’m able to self-reflect on that time of my life. I was literally anxious all the time. It took years for me to help myself, so I want to share some tips on how you can help your loved ones with anxiety.
Tips for helping your loved ones with anxiety.
Tip #1. Educate yourself about anxiety.
Anxiety can manifest in different ways. If you want to help your anxious loved one, the first thing I recommend that you do is research. Take to Google, the library, or a health care professional to educate yourself as much as you can. I have had many failed relationships with people who could not understand the severity of my anxiety, or worse, who didn’t think it was real. Lack of education on anxiety can make it worse for your anxious loved one.
Tip #2. Encourage and support, don’t pressure.
People with anxiety disorders are already in a state of distress. They most likely need encouragement and support from those around them. If you want to help, ask them how they’re feeling about any given thing. Pressuring is only going to exasperate the problem. No amount of “it’ll be fine”, “just get it over with”, or “it’s all in your head” will make confronting a triggering situation any easier for someone with anxiety. I personally need a lot of reassurance and gentle encouragement day to day, and that helps me overcome the constant negativity and criticism from my anxiety. This is the most important thing to remember when your loved one has anxiety.
Tip #3. Don’t take their anxiety personal.
There are periods of time when no amount of encouragement or positivity can change my anxiety level. Bad days are real. Even if you’re doing everything right to help your loved one, there will be times that will be hard no matter what you do. During these times, it’s important to remember not to take their anxiety personally. Hannah is the first person to admit that she struggles with this from time to time. After all, being the loved one of someone with anxiety doesn’t mean you don’t also have flaws or challenges.
Even during bad days, their anxiety is not because of you, and you do not always have the power to make it better.
This knowledge can help you cope, and it can also prevent you from doing real harm. Making someone else’s problems about you is never a good look, but when that person’s problem is anxiety, this can be detrimental to your relationship. Feeling accepted and loved unconditionally can be one of the most powerful combatants to anxiety, and taking personal offense to anxiety symptoms can make your anxious loved one feel like they are not accepted, whether or not this is your intention.
Tip #4. Talk it through.
Openly discussing anxious thoughts and behaviors is another important tip in maintaining a healthy relationship with your loved one. When Hannah and I first started dating, one of the very first things I told her was that I have an anxiety disorder. I made it known right away so that I couldn’t get caught up in a tornado of anxious and negative thoughts. Being open with Hannah allowed me to get ahead of my anxiety instead of keeping it to myself and letting anxiety potentially ruin any chance that I had with her.
As an anxious person would do, I often talked myself out of doing anything at all.
Dating Hannah was no exception. There have been countless times where Hannah has had to debunk my negative or irrational thoughts to help me get on with my life. I appreciate this open communication because I get to challenge my anxious thoughts before they spiral. After Hannah and I talk it through, I’m usually like “wait, why was I so anxious about this again?” Kindly invite your loved one to discuss what and why they are anxious about something. Don’t worry, It’s not entirely up to you to “talk them down”, but you may be able to offer a more rational perspective.
Tip #5. Encourage professional help.
Encouraging professional help doesn’t need to be a last resort. I actually recommend this tip early on. Every situation is not alike, so I understand if this tip is not the first step that you or your loved one may take. Encouraging your loved one to talk to a professional about their anxiety can help them gain lifelong tools and the confidence to confront their anxiety head on.
This tip is so important because if a disorder is left untreated for too long, it can become debilitating. I also want to emphasize the word “encourage”. If you pressure your loved one into taking this step before they are ready, you may inadvertently do more harm than good. Gently express how there is help available, or maybe list some of the positive effects of seeking professional help.
There are many resources available for professional help and further education about anxiety.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America is a credible educational resource that you can use to learn more about anxiety.
There are several different hotline resources where you can call or email in questions or get support if you’re having a crisis or panic attack. Here is one example for the East Coast and here is one example for the West Coast.
I also used Psychology Today in my early stages of seeking help. They have a lot of articles that educated me about my anxiety, and they have resources that can help you take action like their Therapist Finder.
These resources can make a big difference in someone’s life, and so can you as an ally. If you have experience or advice on helping loved ones with mental illness, share in the comments below.
Don’t forget to check out our latest post on making time for your relationship here!