Social Guides for the Socially Awkward: Information for Friends of the Anxious
September 7th, 2013 by Jessica
This post was actually suggested to me by the excellent @WonderAli on Twitter. As a sufferer of anxiety, it’s hard to remember that there are people out there who aren’t anxious on a daily basis. There are people out there who have never had a panic attack, never lain awake at night for hours trying to remember if they locked up the office or not, never avoided going to the grocery store at 5pm…
Even typing that out it feels unbelievable. But it’s true. Often those freaks of nature have trouble understanding what it’s like for the rest of us. They struggle to understand why we feel the way we do and what they can do to help.
This post is for them.
First off, most people with anxiety struggle in silence.
The thing I heard most often in the early years of talking to people about my social anxiety was “Everybody is too busy worrying about themselves to worry about you.” Often my general anxieties weren’t met with eye rolls or “stop being so overdramatic.” If people wanted to actually help me feel better, they would say things like “there’s no use worrying about things you can’t control” Or “It’s fine, you’re not going to get fired for forgetting to lock the office once.”
No matter how well meaning you are, your words are not going to help. In fact, saying things like that not only undermines us, it convinces us that we’re actually as dumb as we feel.
From the brilliant Dr. Andrea Letamendi: “My advice for family members is to understand that a lot of times people do not have a “choice” to be anxious and that telling them to just “get over it” or “stop worrying about it” is not generally good advice as it minimizes the problem but also assumes that the person can simply interrupt the worrying on their own with ease.“
Here’s something to always keep in mind when dealing with people who have pronounced anxiety.
We’re not stupid.
Dude, we KNOW there’s no use worrying about things we can’t control. We KNOW that a crowded grocery store is essentially harmless. We KNOW that statistically flying is safer than driving.
ANXIETY IS NOT RATIONAL. You can’t talk us out of it. When you undermine our feelings you unconsciously encourage us to hide our anxiety and keep it from you.
So what can you do?
A) Acknowledge that you feel helpless and that it frustrates you. You care about us. You hate seeing us like this. You want to help, but there’s nothing you can do to fix it. That upsets you and makes you frustrated. Acknowledge those feelings and remind yourself that those feelings are NOT OUR FAULT. We are not to blame for our anxiety, and therefore we are also not to blame for your feelings of helpless frustration.
A lot of times that frustration leaks out at us when you’re trying to help, and it just adds more fuel to the fire. Now we not only have our own burden of anxiety, but we’re worried about you! AND we feel guilty for making you feel bad. And, again, we’re in a position where we feel the need to hide our anxiety.
B) These words are very, very important: “What do you need?”
For me, physical contact helps. Hold my hand, give me a hug…something like that. It lets me know I’m not alone and instantly knocks my anxiety down a couple of notches.
However, a good friend of mine is not a fan of being touched in general, definitely not when he’s feeling anxious. So what works for me wouldn’t necessarily work for him.
Talk to those you care about who are anxious. Ask them what you can do to help them.
There are, however, some things that I believe are universally helpful.
C) DEEP BREATHING. Lordy, lordy but that helps.
Keep in mind, anxiety is not just mental. It is PHYSICAL, too. We have a visceral fight or flight reaction in our bodies. We get flooded with adrenaline, our heart rate increases, we sweat…it’s not pleasant.
Deep breathing lowers our heart rate and begins to alleviate some of those physical symptoms. When I’m anxious or having a panic attack, I’ll often take a deep breath and then blow it out as though I’m blowing into a straw.
If someone you care about is feeling anxious, remind them to take a deep breath. Breathe with them.
Make us laugh. Point out something interesting. Tell us a story. Being momentarily distracted can really help. I used to try and do the alphabet backwards in my head to get out of panic attacks. Now I can do the alphabet backwards in my sleep, so it doesn’t really help. But there for a while it was awesome!
In the end, whether you help alleviate our anxiety or not, being there for us with no judgment is a truly wonderful thing.
Finally, I’m going to close with this awesome, awesome graphic. I’ve had it for so long, and seen it so many different places, I can’t remember where it came from. It’s titled Care For Introverts, but I feel like a lot of it is useful for people with anxiety, too.
For more information, Dr. Letamendi recommends the following books:
Handbooks for family members are usually written for the parent of a youth with anxiety (to help them with their therapy homework, to support them, coach them, etc).
Thanks for reading. Now, GO FORTH AND COMFORT YOUR LOVED ONES!