Anxiety is isolating. I never feel more alone than when I am having a panic attack, even if someone is sitting with me. I feel far away and distant but also completely and utterly trapped inside of myself.
Captain Kirk needs Spock. Batman needs Alfred. We all need people by our side guiding and helping us. But being a supporter for someone with a mental illness or emotional struggle is not easy. It seems to me that most people, who are supporters of people with emotional struggles, feel an overwhelming sense of helplessness: What do I do? What can I do?
The truth is: you can’t do anything to fix the difficulty another person is going through, but you can take certain steps to ensure the person you care about knows you empathize with them and care about their well-being.
[Disclaimer: these are the things that help or hinder ME in my experience with anxiety. This is based on my experience alone and by cursory research I’ve done reading articles on helping people with anxiety and panic attacks. Please cross-reference this with other personal accounts and – more importantly – advice from mental health professionals.]
Let’s start with actions or statements that make me feel MORE isolated. These are the DON’Ts:
- “Don’t think about it.” Gee. Now, why didn’t I think of that? Oh, yeah, because I already did and that’s why I can’t stop thinking about it. Honestly, avoiding hard and fast “advice” like this is probably a safe bet. Telling me what to do to cope with my anxiety is about as effective trying to cut paper with your fingers.
- “Oh, relax!” Oh. Yeah. Good idea. Let me just calm this fight or flight chemical reaction that’s happening in my brain. A little piece of advice to the world out there: a panic attack is not controllable. It is not a matter of “relaxing.” Once I’ve reached panic attack level, I can’t hear anything that’s going on around me.
- “Why do you take things so seriously?” Look up the word “minimizing” in the dictionary. Asking me this question will send me into a self-worth tumble. Generally, people with anxiety (and depression) have very negative self-talk. In some minor research I’ve done on the matter, this often is how escalation into anxiety attacks can occur. If you question my thought process in this way, chances are I’ll say to myself: “s/he’s right. I take things too seriously. I’m not enough in control of myself and I need to be better (more perfect/not make mistakes/etc), and therefore I don’t deserve to feel happy…” tumble tumble tumble.
- Changing the subject. While distraction can help a person with obsession on occasion, when I’m in the throes of a whirlwind of thoughts, I need to purge them. And in order to purge them, I have to talk about them, and most likely repeat myself over and over again. Talking to a person with patience is most helpful in these moments.
Here are the things that DO help:
- “It will be okay.” This sort of appears to be an “empty” phrase, but it isn’t. Telling someone, especially someone who is in the middle of a panic attack, that they will see the other side of the panic is a really big help. Often times, when I’m having an anxiety episode or a panic attack, the anxiety escalates because I’m terrified it will never end. Having someone remind me over and over again that I will calm down eventually is a subtle way to help bring me to center. It can act as a sort of mantra.
- “I’m here for you.” Or “I love you.” Or “I care about you.” Just a reminder that I’m cared about helps me feel immediately calmer. It makes me kinder to myself. My self-talk might change from “you are worthless” to “this person cares about you and you are worthy of their love.” Or, at the very least: “you don’t deserve to feel this awful.”
- Physical contact. Hugging for me is so soothing. I never feel more cared for than when I am being hugged by someone who is supporting me. Unfortunately, hugging can be touch and go as far as panic attacks are concerned. Hugging can make me feel restricted sometimes. And when I’m having a panic attack, I need individual space and room to breathe. But if I am panicking, often times some sort of touch will help to center me. Touching the shoulder, fingers through hair, rubbing the back. All of these actions can ground me when I’m in my worst place.
- “I’m sorry. What can I do?” Often times there isn’t anything you can do, but “I’m sorry” is an expression of empathy. And just admitting to the helplessness, and giving the person with the difficulty the reins or the control over the dynamic of the friendship in that moment, can be very soothing. For me, I realize, well, there is nothing this person can do but listen. So clearly, I just need to talk and then I will feel better. Just hearing that someone is willing to listen sometimes is just enough to bring me out of a dark place.
- Stay with me. Bouts of anxiety or panic can be long, but having someone tough it out with me helps me a lot in the long run. Being alone or isolated is a tumble trigger for me. Especially because I often feel like a burden to my loved ones.
- Tell me you are proud. Sometimes, pulling myself out of the stairwell and going back to work is a struggle. And doing just that deserves a pat on the back. Remind the person you love that they’re doing great no matter how small the victory.
The key here is empathy. There are two things I experience that make me feel so much better about everything: 1) The way my therapist empathizes with me by nodding and saying “yes” when I explain my feelings, and 2) When my significant other or close friend says: “I love you and I hate to see you like this. You deserve so much better than this. What can I do?”
All we can really do is be OPEN and empathetic and make attempts at understanding. Sometimes, I find myself in the position where I’m talking to another person with anxiety, and I’ve used no-no phrases. And I can tell you that in those moments, I’m feeling cold and uncaring. Sometimes, we need to take a step back and ASK people what they need. Because often, just offering help is enough to make someone feel so much less isolated and ensure they feel cared for and supported.
Here are some links that a loved one of someone with anxiety might find useful:
Huffington Post – 7 Things You Shouldn’t Say to Someone with Anxiety (They disagree with me about the reassurance tactic – “it will be okay.” I appreciate reassurance in that way. I need that kind of passive optimism.)