How to be a Good Supporter

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:

Anxiety and Depression Association of America – Spouse or Partner

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.)

ADAVIC – How to cope with and help a loved one experiencing anxiety and depression

Calm Clinic – 12 Tips for Friends and Family of Those with Anxiety

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The Crippling Power of the Mean Voice: Self-Sabotage and Flawed Logic

I’m in the kind of relationship that doesn’t really have any major conflict. My partner is supportive and kind, patient and understanding, and we operate on this “we’re a team” paradigm that permeates even our rare arguments. It’s essentially as close to the utopic relationship as I’ve conjured in my imagination in my days of singledom. I’ll stop my gushing now and say simply: I have exactly what I’ve been looking for.

Though my significant other (S.O.) and I don’t really have any problems, there’s certainly a lot of potential for conflict, trust me. My obsessions and abandonment issues alone could tear us apart if two things didn’t happen: 1) I’m as up front and honest and forthright as I can be about my obsessions, including the ones that involve my partner. Including the ones that could potentially hurt his feelings. 2) My partner recognizes that my obsessions are not based in reality – they are a sort of delusional thought process that is there to create conflict.

The only time that conflict arises from my anxiety is when it becomes really overwhelming for both of us at the same time. An understandable circumstance, really. But a fairly rare occurrence, nonetheless.

Ironically, a major problem arises from the lack of conflict itself. For a person, like me, who fears loss so much (“everyone I love is going to leave me”) and has an unbelievably low self-worth (“I don’t deserve happiness”), my mind doesn’t know how to cope with this excellent thing that I have. My mind wants to create conflict, because that’s what makes sense. The world is an unfair, unforgiving place, and I am clearly unworthy of good things, because everything I love either leaves me or hurts me in some way. So, therefore, (in my mind) my great, awesome, healthy, and productive relationship will fail. And then I start preparing myself for it emotionally. Or, I react to things I think are happening that aren’t.

This is called self-sabotage.

The self-sabotage manifests itself in a few ways, most of them seemingly minor incidents. But with me, mountains are made out of molehills. Everything that happens has a pattern or meaning, OBVIOUSLY (this irrational paradigm is a result of the diabolical combination of being an English major and watching nine seasons of How I Met Your Mother). So, that one time at dinner when my S.O. looked away from me when I was speaking, that clearly means that he was A) looking at someone else and therefore is cheating on me, B) is bored because I am uninteresting and therefore will leave me tomorrow, C) is annoyed because I am an annoying person and therefore he is lying about loving me. And so on. And so forth.

These syllogisms are obviously flawed and irrational. None of these conclusions come even close to having any truth value whatsoever. My partner is faithful and loving and very much enjoys my company.

I’ve spent a lot of energy, in recent weeks when this happens, focusing on what is more likely. The likely explanation for this action is: something happened over there and my S.O. probably looked over in that direction for no particular reason. This helps me overcome the irrational syllogism, and it has been fairly successful; I will repeat it to myself over and over (maybe a positive obsession?) until the “more likely” reasonable voice is louder than, as I like to refer to it, the mean voice. That evil bitch that lives in my head and tells me lies. (I had a close friend mention that she has one of these. She calls it “Crazy Girl.”)

These flawed syllogisms don’t happen all the time. When I’m not anxious….when I’m “together” and “reasonable,” I don’t think this way at all. I see my relationship in a realistic way, am understanding and reasonable about certain behaviors or actions that I could misinterpret in the wrong frame of mind, and recognize that those syllogisms are ridiculous and unfounded.

Sometimes, even the stark contrast and dichotomous nature of my mind causes me to get down on myself. If I can manage a reasonable response to shit on a fairly regular basis, why the hell do I have to make all this crap up in my head? Why do I put myself through it? This, occasionally, in and of itself will cause me to get down on myself and start a negative cycle of thinking. But usually already when I’m in that irrational frame of mind. That bad headspace, as they say.

That’s the fucked up part, really. Even when I’m having these irrational moments, I recognize that they are falsifications. That I’m ascribing meaning to something that isn’t meaningful. My boyfriend, who is very forgetful, mixing up an event (like where we were when something happened) is NOT evidence that he is seeing someone else. It is merely a result of his flawed memory. The notion that I know better, even in the moment, frustrates me more than anything else – because even when I’m in it and I know that it’s all wrong and dumb and bad for me and only causing problems where none exist…I still can’t pull out of it. And then I either have escalated anxiety attack (read: panic attack in potentia) or I get depressed.

It’s like one of those nightmares, where you’re running from something terrifying and your legs just won’t move faster. You’re running like you’re in water, and you know you can run faster, you know HOW to do it, but your body just WON’T respond. It should be no surprise that I have these nightmares all the time. That I’ve had them regularly since I was young.

Honestly, these are really the only nightmares I ever have.

Perfection, Purity, and the Merry-Go-Round

My obsessions are driven by very simple core issues that I think stand for many people with similar difficulties:

  • Perfection. This is a big, obvious one. Remember Danny Tanner on “Full House”? He had to use the dust-buster to clean the vacuum. But it isn’t just about things being in their right order. I have some very serious difficulty making mistakes. Even in innocuous situations like…playing a game. I’m super competitive, and if I make a mistake that causes myself to lose, I get legitimately down on myself. This permeates every aspect of my life, including work, my friendships, and my relationship.
  • Purity. OCD often manifests into “themed” OCD – many people have a religious-themed OCD where they compulsively pray or hyper-focus on what God will think of their behavior. I’m not religious, but I have an almost impossible standard for myself when it comes to morality and ethical behavior. I never should have read Kant – I sort of operate on this “always do the ethical thing” plane that is very unforgiving and inflexible.
  • High Standards. This ties into the other two quite a bit, but it’s separate, in a way. I believe that people can be better than how they are generally. I believe in being progressive and moving forward. And being self-aware and avoiding hypocrisy. Because I have these standards for other people, I often feel as though I have to be some sort of…model for good behavior. I’m fairly certain every single person I know would say that I am “too hard” on myself and that I should “give myself a break.”

Part of the major problem people with obsessions face is the hyper-focus on a single (or multiple) thought(s) mostly because they don’t want to have them. This can include some of the most depraved and disturbing ideas and images to simple things that make them uncomfortable and anxious, such as cleanliness (avoiding germs which yields hand-washing compulsive behavior).

Most people have thousands of fairly troubling thoughts a day that they don’t even notice. They think about their boss naked, or kicking a child, or some inappropriate person happens to flash through their mind while they’re having sex, or they think about what it would be like to stab a person themselves or jump in front of a train. A person who doesn’t obsess will just let the thought pass through their mind. They don’t pay any attention to it. But the content of the obsession doesn’t matter. The obsessive thought itself isn’t the problem (like, really, are you going to kick a child?), it’s the obsession. And what drives the obsession is a person’s pathology. When I asked my therapist why I never had violent thoughts about harming myself – basically trying to understand why my thoughts took on particular themes over others – she said simply that it was just my own brand of obsession. Other people may not obsess about the things I do, but they obsess about things that I never bother to pay attention to, the thoughts’ existence in my mind notwithstanding.

The issue is that I’m so hyper-focused on perfection (including purity of mind), that I can’t ignore thoughts that trouble me. I then become my own Thought Police. Watching my thoughts so carefully, that I often lose focus on the world around me. Imagine you think of someone you know naked. Someone who you are not attracted to nor would any have any sexual interest in. Thinking of this person naked might upset you for more than one reason: A) you don’t want to be a sexual deviant. B) You want to remain faithful to your significant other and you think that just because you have a thought it will turn into action. C) Depending upon who the person is, having an attraction to a purely platonic person would be awful, because it would make every single encounter with that person an anxious encounter. Therefore, the thought itself creates an anticipated anxiety, because you think you’re a sexual deviant (you’re certainly not), or you’re going to cheat on your significant other (something you would not do), or every encounter with that person will be awkward and anxious (well, now it will be).

Then, you’ll say “I don’t want to have this thought, because it makes me anxious.” Now, you have this tiny pit of anxiety in your stomach. The thought will recirculate through your mind, and you’ll watch it. Think of a merry-go-round: if you just watch a merry-go-round without focusing, odds are you won’t see details on the horses or whatever’s on there. You’ll just see a blur of horses. But if you focus on one particular horse, you’ll watch it go round and round and round and round and after a few revolutions, you’ll see every detail of it and now it stands out among the herd. This is now the only horse on the merry-go-round you can see.

This is how I watch a thought. And because I’m watching it, it won’t leave.

This is the major irony of obsession and OCD. The person with it is doing it to themselves. Meanwhile, every time it goes around the thought-merry-go-round, you’ll get sicker and sicker with anxiety, and it escalates in to some pretty serious physical symptoms: shortness of breath, raised heart rate, irritability, heart palpitations, ill feeling in the stomach. And because of all of this physical stuff compounded on the merry-go-round, how can you focus on the problem you’re trying to solve at work right now? Well, you can’t, because now you’re going to have a panic attack.

You’re worried about people seeing you like that. You have to find a way to make it to the stairwell before anybody sees you starting to cry. When you finally sit down in the stairwell, in the quiet, you’ll start crying from that really deep place in your stomach. You’ll start shaking, grab a hold of the banister, shut your eyes, and the world around you will disappear. And you’ll have is this thought that ultimately turns into one conclusion:

“I am a horrible, pathetic person.”

And then you sit in the stairwell at work, the merry-go-round at full speed, you’re crying and hyperventilating and HATING yourself for having a singular thought that doesn’t mean anything.

So how do you stop the merry-go-round? Well, once you reach panic attack level, you don’t. Trying to stop it only will make it worse. Panic and anxiety attacks generally last about 20 minutes. So, you ride it out. You wait until it goes away. You endure all of the physical and emotional pain, because you can’t stop a speeding train. You’re only one person.