By Melissa Lewis-Duarte, Ph.D.
Confession: I’m anxious.
In what feels like a former lifetime, I taught psychology college courses and worked as a business consultant, trainer and coach. Given my mentoring roles (and my Ph.D. in psychology) it wasn’t uncommon for a student or training participant to pull me aside and admit that they were suffering from anxiety. The truth is, so was I.
Diagnosed with an anxiety disorder more than two decades ago, I’ve been both the giver and receiver of the “I’m anxious” confession. I understand what it’s like to struggle to find the right words, and I know how crushing it feels to receive the wrong response. Even well-intentioned loved ones can exacerbate anxiety with a comment that feels unsympathetic or judgmental.
To avoid misunderstandings and hurt feelings, here are five helpful responses when a loved one approaches you about their anxiety.
Mental illness is common, and your anxious loved ones are not alone. In fact, anxiety became even more prevalent during the pandemic as people across the globe struggled with an unprecedented health crisis, loneliness and isolation. By reassuring your loved ones that their struggles are valid and reminding them that they aren’t alone, you can help them keep perspective and feel supported.
However, remember to tread carefully in this conversation. “You are not alone” does not equate to, “We all feel that way.” There’s a big difference between occasionally feeling anxious and being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. You don’t want to be dismissive or minimize your loved one’s suffering.
Unfortunately, anxiety can spur feelings of shame, embarrassment and isolation. Further aggravating the situation, anxiety can cause people to withdraw from relationships and social interactions. You can help by reassuring your loved one that there is no reason for them to feel shame — that it is a health condition and not their fault; that anxiety has nothing to do with strength or weakness.
The best approach is to treat an anxiety diagnosis the same as you would a high blood pressure diagnosis: Without judgement. When both your words and actions show acceptance, you can make your loved ones feel supported and loved.
When I feel anxious, I want to run, both figuratively and literally. I want to run away from wherever I am, and I want to run from the internal sensations of anxiety. However, I started practicing mindfulness and am learning to sit with these emotions more. Part of that success comes from realizing it’s ok to not feel ok. There’s a freedom in not “fearing the fear” — in not allowing the anxiety to be present. This helps me to accept that anxiety is simply a part of my life, and it does not have to control my life.
To clarify, you shouldn’t tell your anxious loved ones they need a dose of mindfulness. While attempting to be helpful, responses like, “Just relax. Maybe you need to take a deep breath,” can have the opposite effect. While you can support them, you likely will not be able to solve the problem.
It’s important for your loved ones to hear, “It’s ok that you feel anxious. I’m here with you. There’s no pressure for you to feel good right now.” This is different from saying, “You’re ok,” which can be incredibly invalidating. Rather, you are making it clear that, “It’s ok that you’re not ok.” This can help them to feel safer, supported and validated. It can also help them to feel safe admitting they are not ok.
Chances are, your loved ones have at least a few coping techniques that relieve their anxiety. So, there’s no need to tell them what you think they should do. No one wants to be lectured by their loved one during a moment of need.
Instead, it’s best to let them tell you what they need. Perhaps, like me, they get relief from moving. If they need to go on a walk, you can offer to keep them company. Or you can offer to watch their kids (if applicable) so they can walk alone. Additionally, people are much more likely to accept help when it is offered than if they have to ask for it. The key is to simply offer.
Mental illness is treatable. Unfortunately, less than half of U.S. adults experiencing mental illness get treatment. There are multiple reasons for this, from lack of insurance to feelings of shame. You may not be able to provide insurance to your loved ones, but you can certainly encourage them to seek help.
People are more likely to seek help if they don’t feel judged. Likely, you would never question someone for going to a cardiologist or doubt their need to take blood pressure medicine. Likewise, you should never question someone who needs professional guidance or medication for a mental illness. As a loved one, your role is not to be a doctor, nor an expert, but rather to help your loved one seek the help they need.
Ultimately, if your loved ones have an anxiety disorder, the best thing you can do is show them love and acceptance. You can be open and curious without judgement. That’s what works when I communicate about anxiety, both as the sender and receiver.
As an anxious mom in search of calm, Melissa Lewis-Duarte, Ph.D., writes about living with anxiety and mindfulness-based behavioral change in real life. Prior to founding Working On Calm, she enjoyed working as a business consultant, college instructor and corporate trainer. Currently, Melissa lives with her husband in Scottsdale, Ariz., managing their chaotic life, three young boys and a barking dog.
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