Welcome to our new series on Anxiety and Relationships! I really believe in the practical steps I’ll be sharing with you, and hope they make a difference in your relationships. Over the next few weeks, we’ll talk about ways to support anxious loved ones - from friends to significant others to children.
We all know someone who struggles with anxiety.
Today let’s talk about friends! Have you ever tried to be a friend to someone struggle with anxiety? We all want to help our friends, but we often don’t know how. Without realizing it we may be doing the opposite of helping. So I’ve got some Do’s and Don'ts for you to consider. But first, I’m going to talk a little about what anxiety is.
What IS Anxiety?
If you’ve never struggled with anxiety, you may wonder...
What is the big deal?
Why doesn’t she just get over it?
Can’t he just power through it?
If he would only trust God...
She is weak or lazy.
All of these thoughts are pretty typical, but they aren’t helpful. Your friend can no more shake off anxiety than she can shake off her own skin.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines anxiety as fear or nervousness about what MIGHT happen. I would add that anxiety affects the whole person - it is not just about a thought process. Physical symptoms can include upset stomach, headaches, randomly throwing up, emotional shutdowns, or uncontrollable crying. Anxiety makes you want to isolate and be alone. It is no small thing.
My Experience with Anxiety
Several years ago I had an almost debilitating battle with anxiety. Every time I left the house, I felt like I could jump out of my skin. On a daily basis, my feet would tingle, my left eye would blur, and I couldn’t sleep more than a couple hours at a time.
I had some good friends who helped me through this season.
One friend would call me daily and ask how I was doing. She would never judge me. Sometimes she suggested I take a walk and get some fresh air. Once she brought my family dinner.
A nurse friend encouraged me to go to the doctor and consider taking medication, which I did. I needed her to suggest that option. I had some real reservations about taking meds, but they got me sleeping again, which was huge. It helped that a trusted friend suggested that step.
Another friend gave me a book about a woman who had struggled with anxiety and won. I needed that too. I needed to know there was hope, that I would not always be this way, and that other people had struggled with anxiety and found peace again.
My husband called my former therapist and asked her for advice. I felt so cared for by this loving act.
I asked my therapist if it would be a good idea for me to stay home for 2 weeks to allow my nervous system to rest. But research shows if you stay home, you are more likely to never leave your house.
Some friends would just be with me, even though I was no fun. Their presence meant a lot. Being WITH someone who cared was such an important part of my journey.
As I write this, I realize how blessed I was to have so many helpful friends during that season. I also realize a big part of all this:
None of them could have helped me if I hadn’t let them know what was going on with me.
I am so glad I had the courage to tell them.
What NOT to Say
I remember several unhelpful comments…
People saying, “Just think positive thoughts.”
People knowing I was struggling but staying silent, never asking me about it.
One person told me, “You’ll never be the same again.” That was the worst!
Another person told me they didn’t want me to talk to them about it. I respected their request. Looking back I can see our relationship was never the same.
So What DO You Say to Your Anxious Friend?
Here are some ideas:
1. Don’t judge.
Instead, you might say, “I’ve never been through what you are going through, but I want to be here for you.
Ask them, “What is this like for you?” and then just listen. Give them the opportunity to tell you what is going on.
Anxiety is a liar. It makes us want to isolate and feel ashamed. If your friend cancels on you, try not to take it personally. Keep pursuing them.
4. Ask them what they need.
“What do you need right now? Is there any way I can help?”
Recently, I was with a friend when she suddenly became really anxious. I asked her, “What do you need right now?” She said she needed an escape route in case she wanted to leave. So we made a plan. Having a plan helped reduce her anxiety. Little things like this can help.
By no means is this an exhaustive list of how to help a friend struggling with anxiety.
What would you add?
What do you need from friends when you struggle?
What has been helpful?
What has not been helpful?
I hope this advice helps - and I’d LOVE to hear your comments!
Donna Durham, MMFT
Owner & Co-Founder
P.S. I’m so excited to continue this series on anxiety and relationships. My 21-year-old daughter Rachel is writing a guest post about her own journey with anxiety later on in the series. You won’t want to miss it!
I hope this blog post brings you comfort with any anxieties you might be dealing with. Just know, you are not alone. We are always here to talk if you need someone. Simply reply to this email. We always love hearing from you.