Those of us who’ve struggled with anxiety can find it really frustrating when others in our lives just don’t get it. They can say things like:
“Just get over it.” – Yes, thanks… I wish I’d thought of that.
“What do you have to be anxious about?” – Ummm…everything… anything… nothing… all at once…
“You don’t seem anxious.” – Yeah? Get in my brain and see if you still think so.
and my personal favorite,
“You think too much!” – Thanks, jackass. No, maybe I think just the right amount!
Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of trying to fix us, the people in our lives could just try to understand it a little… maybe just hold some space for us?
If our discomfort makes them uncomfortable, that’s their issue… not ours. Maybe they can stop trying to make us responsible for their discomfort, too. That would be awesome.
If the people in our lives want to be supportive, there are several things they need to know. Here are some ways to help someone in your life understand anxiety and support you better.
- Anxiety is real.
- Anxiety can affect us in a variety of ways.
- Anxiety is a protective instinct that’s gone too far.
- You can’t think your way out of anxiety
- Anxiety triggers are not always obvious… even to me.
- I may seem calm when I feel incredibly anxious.
- Don’t try to fix it for me.
- It’s not about you.
- Anxiety and stress are different.
- Anxiety can grow out of prior trauma.
- Anxiety is treatable.
- Medical doctors can be an important part of the answer.
- I am not my diagnosis.
- Here’s how you can help.
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Anxiety is real.
To people who haven’t experienced anxiety, it’s hard to understand how this can be so difficult. Aside from being a real diagnosis, it’s also something that affects people with anxiety disorders in real ways. Your anxiety may be very different from mine, and it may feel different every time you experience it.
Anxiety can affect us in a variety of ways.
You’ll hear this from me often: it’s all connected. Mind – Body – Spirit – Relationships
They all affect each other, and illness or healing in one area affects the others, whether we realize it or not. While we can discuss physical, cognitive, emotional, and relational symptoms of anxiety, the truth is that it’s not really that simple.
Still, some experiences that may be anxiety-induced can include:
- jittery, can’t sit still
- trouble sleeping
- nausea or indigestion
- sexual performance difficulties
- can’t concentrate, easily distracted
- too many thoughts at once
- memory problems
- can’t make decisions
- trouble making good decisions
- short-tempered or grouchy
- disproportionate reactions to things
- easily hurt or offended
- feel overwhelmed in social situations
Anxiety Disorders Include
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder
- Social Anxiety Disorder
- Panic Disorder/ Panic Attacks
- Separation Anxiety Disorder
This list is far from all-inclusive, but can you see how anxiety symptoms can easily resemble ADHD, Depression, and other mental health conditions? If anxiety is not diagnosed properly, you can easily end up with prescriptions for acid-reducers for indigestion or even amphetamine-based ADHD meds for concentration problems that really have their basis in anxiety. (This last option makes me cringe every time I think about it!)
Anxiety is a protective instinct that’s gone too far.
Your brain has one job: protect you from a complex and dangerous world.
Think back to caveman days… everything is about survival. When there is a threat or opportunity, the mind and body work in concert to help you survive.
Avoid tigers so you don’t die. Catch the antelope so you and your family eat, stay warm, survive, and continue to make more babies. Threats and opportunities both count as stressors and both send your brain and body into a series of coordinated actions to help you survive. Check out Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky for a beautiful discussion of this concept.
The threat response in your brain works very quickly, responding in 30-50 milliseconds (that’s fast!). However, the analytical problem-solving part of your brain works much slower, firing in about 200-250 milliseconds (about 1/4 of a second). When there’s a tiger coming for you, you definitely want the faster part of your brain in charge!
Unfortunately, the Human brain is developed for a world that no longer exists. In the fast-paced world we live in, we’re surrounded by tigers. A deadline for work, your kid complaining about something, getting flipped off by an aggressive driver on the highway, your partner “pushing your buttons” in passive-aggressive ways… none of these are fatal, but the reactionary part of your brain doesn’t distinguish. They’re all tigers that are waiting in the weeds to jump out and kill you.
You can’t think your way out of anxiety
By the time the analytical part of your brain processes that something isn’t really so bad, your survival mechanisms in the brain and body have already reacted. You can’t think your way out of anxiety. So, we go through our day fending off hundreds, perhaps thousands of tigers — waaaay more than our caveman predecessors.
Because our brains are designed to manage caveman-frequency stressors (a few a day), the brain and body become overwhelmed. We all have unique brains, bodies, and lives, but many of us just aren’t equipped to deal with that many tigers. When it’s too much, we struggle.
In important ways, suffering from anxiety isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a sign that your brain and body are working in hyper-drive to protect you in this crazy world we all live in. Sometimes, we have to intervene to get it all in balance, but that’s possible with time and effort, so don’t despair. Read on…
Anxiety triggers are not always obvious… even to me.
While we may know what some of our specific triggers are, it’s common to feel anxiety when we’re not aware of any specific triggers. The mind and body are constantly changing, and there can be any number of mind-body interactions that set off our anxiety.
Sometimes an event we normally handle just fine occurs when we’ve not gotten enough sleep or when we’re hungry. Monthly hormonal cycles can have a tremendous effect on how you handle stressors. Sometimes we’ve pushed so many other things down to get through our daily lives that our stress containers begin to fail us.
We can easily get caught up in the self-judgmental cycle of deciding whether we should be anxious in a given moment. This internal dialogue rarely goes well, and often triggers every worse anxiety because we now feel weak and needy!
Choose to stop “shoulding all over yourself” and focus on what is. If you feel anxious, you do. There are ways to calm yourself, but self-doubt and judgment are typically NOT helpful.
Also not helpful… when someone asks “What do you have to be anxious about?” If you want to ask someone that… don’t.
I may seem calm when I feel incredibly anxious.
Some of us have high-functioning anxiety, where we walk through the world feeling internally anxious, but don’t show it to the outside world. We all do this to some extent, because we can’t go through life consumed by our anxiety and spilling that onto everyone around us. But we still have to go to work, attend class, deal with the others in our lives, etc.
We get really good at hiding our anxiety for several reasons. Most people we meet in the world can’t hold space with that very well. Our discomfort makes them uncomfortable. They try to talk us out of feeling anxious because they can’t share space with us in those moments, or they use it as an invitation to turn the topic to their frustrations.
Of course, we don’t want to suffer professional or relational consequences because others think we’re too weak or maladjusted to handle our lives. So we suffer in silence. We learn to mask this and project the “I’ve got it all together” vibe when we really don’t.
Don’t try to fix it for me.
As a rule, trying to making helpful suggestions is not helpful. Someone who suffers from anxiety has probably done so for quite some time, trying on a daily basis to crack the code of getting back to a “normal” life. If you don’t suffer from anxiety, what are you going to say to someone who’s suffered for years (or decades) they haven’t already thought of? It ends up being frustrating at best, and infuriatingly disrespectful at worst.
You can’t fix someone else’s anxiety, and I promise your odds of suggesting something they haven’t considered and are able to hear from you are pretty darn slim.
Unless your goal is to insult someone leaving them feeling more shame and probably a little pissed off, save it.
It’s not about you.
Remember whose anxiety it is. If someone is feeling anxious, don’t take that on. Be willing to share space with someone who’s feeling uncomfortable without demanding they not feel anxious.
When you try to fix someone else’s anxiety, you’re not really helping them. You’re just trying to make them responsible for the discomfort you feel as you experience them. If you feel uncomfortable with someone else’s discomfort, that’s on you — not them.
Anxiety and stress are different.
As I mentioned above, anxiety is stress that’s gotten out of control. Stress is a survival trait, and is response is a rapid and complex exchange between the brain and body. When the brain perceives threat, it tells the body to make all kinds of sudden changes to optimize your ability to fight the tiger or run away.
This isn’t bad until it gets out of control. The stress response is what motivates us to excel. It energizes us when we encounter a challenge. It’s what drives competition, and ultimately, the innate desire to procreate.
Remember the Four F’s of the Stress Response: Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Sex.
Anxiety is stress’s angry cousin. Stress is not the enemy. Anxiety is. Dr. Kelly McGonigal wrote an amazing book called The Upside of Stress that explains all this in detail and gives lots of wonderful suggestions for how to make stress your friend.
Anxiety can grow out of prior trauma.
Remember, these feelings grow out of the mind and body trying to help you survive a complex and dangerous world. Nothing complicates this like trauma.
Whether it’s physical or severe emotional trauma or attachment/developmental trauma (most of us carry a combination of these throughout our daily lives), it keeps the brain and body in hyper-drive most of the time. Unresolved trauma leaves us feeling unsafe, even in circumstances that actually are safe for us.
If you’ve never experienced this, you’re fortunate. You’re also in the minority.
Someone who suffers from anxiety doesn’t necessarily have unresolved trauma, so don’t assume anything about someone else. If they do, that’s their business and they’ll deal with it when they’re ready.
Both trauma and anxiety are ultimately about our effort to feel safe and calm when our daily lives warrant it. The 95% of our day that doesn’t have us fighting the tiger or hinting the antelope would ideally be relatively calm. For those who suffer from trauma and/or anxiety, that number usually hovers pretty close to zero.
Anxiety is treatable.
If you’re ready to seek solutions, treatment for anxiety is available. Ultimately, your conversations with your care providers will drive the decision about how to treat it.
I’m a big fan of approaches that go easy on our bodies and respect the deep connection between mind and body. There is a strong and growing research base that supports meditation as an option.
If you don’t know anything about meditation, I suggest starting with Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics by Dan Harris. It’s a great book and an easy read.
He also has a terrific podcast called Ten Percent Happier. Be sure to check out the episode with RuPaul – it’s amazing.
I’m a big fan of the therapy process. You hear a lot about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy these days, but that’s not the only option. You can do your research to see what kind of therapy feels right to you.
Remember, it’s all connected. Experiences of anxiety do not exist on an island in your psyche. It is part of a vast mind-brain-body ecosystem that interacts with you daily thoughts and experiences. Therapy may help you not only find some coping skills, but also get to the roots of the issue.
Most of the time my own clients would come for one reason, discover several layers beneath the surface, and continue working on things beyond their initial concerns. Whether you stay to achieve deeper insight or just have a few sessions to get armored up with some solid coping skills, personal psychotherapy can be a big help.
Don’t assume your health insurance won’t pay for therapy. More plans are covering behavioral health these days, so it’s worth checking.
Medical doctors can be an important part of the answer.
It’s common for people to discuss their anxiety with their medical doctors. Many women discuss with their OB/GYN. These folks are there to help, and there’s nothing wrong with starting there.
To begin with, it’s never a bad idea to rule out anything purely physiological. No amount of psychotherapy or meditation is going to help if you have a malfunctioning thyroid or some other condition that can induce feelings of anxiety. It’s best to rule that out first.
Just remember that medical doctors are trained for medical interventions. While many mainstream practitioners are starting to embrace more holistic approaches, medical training training teaches how to fix the body. When you consider the profound influence the pharmaceutical and insurance industries have on our healthcare system in the USA, it’s no surprise that there are many doctors who take a “prescribe first” approach.
Maybe that’s the right answer for you – I can’t comment on that. You have to make that decision with your care providers. Just consider the perspective of the person making recommendations, and hopefully they will work with you to find solutions that feel appropriate for your life. Sometimes, that’s medication and it can be important to accept that when it’s warranted.
A Google search is never a good substitute for sound medical advice. But it can also be helpful to seek other qualified opinions if you’re unsure.
I am not my diagnosis.
Maybe you experience me as anxious most of the time. Maybe you experience me as calm and don’t believe I really have anxiety beneath the surface. Either way, that is not who I am.
The emotional challenges we all face do not define us as people. They don’t make us kind, compassionate, inquisitive, or loving. Sometimes they can make us hard to share space with, but there’s always more beneath the surface.
Don’t think of me as “that anxious person.” Even if you have to dig a little, my strengths lie in my ability to connect with and love the people I allow to be in my orbit. If I let you in, it means I trust you to look deeper to find these things in me.
They’re there. It’s worth the effort to find out.
Here’s how you can help.
If you really want to help, the willingness to be with someone no matter what their emotional state is an important form of acceptance. It’s like saying “I see and accept you, no matter what you’re feeling or putting into the space between us. I’ve got you.”
That kind of acceptance is probably the most helpful thing you can do. You’re accepting them, anxiety and all, which is pretty darn important.
Don’t “just say something.” Sit there. Be willing to share space with them, whether you understand what they’re going through or not.
With anxiety, if you know… you know. Hopefully these thoughts will help someone in your life understand and support you better.
What other topics would you like me to cover in other posts? How about…
- Ways to overcome anxiety
- Risk factors
- Techniques for managing stress without medication
- Meditation techniques of people with busy brains