As some of you may know, I have talked about stress and anxiety both on my blog and YouTube Channel. Usually, this takes places within my Happiness Is… series, but, it has a been a while. Recently, I have focussed on other content but mental health is still something close to my heart. Therefore, I thought it might be time to share some additional thoughts and perspectives.
The thrust behind this series has always been about living a happy life. Or, living a happier life at least. However, talking about mental health helps to break down barriers and, although many are working towards the same positive agenda, there is still much that we can do.
I have talked before about how stress and anxiety can feel for us as individuals and would recommend taking a look at that post before continuing. However, there is a side of these issues that is less commonly discussed. That side is about those supporting loved ones who suffer from stress and anxiety. And, you know, it’s not easy.
Of course, it will never compare to the plight of the anxious individual, but that doesn’t mean it is plain sailing for those bearing witness. I, therefore, wanted to explore this side of things in support of those that may need it. Those that experience the fear and heartache of seeing others losing control. Who experience their own emotional curve when trying to assist and support others in their time of need. Because that can be tough and it can be too easy to inadvertently make things worse.
Our own experience
In my experience, mild anxiety is very similar to just being nervous. However, as discussed in my ‘understanding stress, anxiety and depression’ post, anxiety ranges across a spectrum. Recognising anxiety in ourselves can help us to understand how others feel. But this isn’t always the case. I have supported individuals in a very anxious state, who then, on different occasions, say that everyone else’s anxiety is fabricated. Seems odd right? But if I am really honest, I used to think the same. I believe that unless you recognise your own experiences of stress and anxiety, it can be incredibly difficult to understand the suffering of others.
Interestingly, someone once told me, ‘I think I have always had anxiety, I just didn’t know what it was’. This also reflects my own situation and, personally, I don’t think it is an isolated perspective. But, of course, there is a downside. In contrast to the good of raising awareness and the education of others, it can feel to many that there is an ‘anxiety bandwagon’.
I have had panic attacks myself. Although these experiences on happened during very stressful times which, thankfully, has not been often, it means that I can understand how they feel. I have also supported other people who are having a panic attack. This has been with people who are merely acquaintances, but also people that I am very close to. In either scenario, watching someone suffer from acute anxiety or a panic attack can be very distressing, particularly if it is someone that you love.
Stress and anxiety stem from our intrinsic need to protect ourselves, but in reality, we can still feel this way, even about situations that aren’t physically dangerous. Have you ever considered how you felt before going into an interview? That situation isn’t dangerous, but it can make us feel nervous or anxious. In my previous HR role, I attended periodic meetings with the board of Governors. I always found myself exhibiting my usual anxiety traits in the days leading up to the meeting. No matter how confident I felt about the information I would present, I always felt anxious.
Alas, even with personal experience, it can still be difficult to understand others. Anxiety can feel overwhelming, and seem illogical and irrational. This can lead those on the outside to feel frustrated, irritated and angry. But by widening our understanding we can develop our awareness of how to be supportive. Thus facilitating better management of the situation as, interestingly, our instinctive reactions may not be as supportive as one might think.
Have you ever been the person to say ‘stop worrying, it will be fine’. I have done that. I have also had someone tell me the same as I have mulled something over. Unfortunately, those few words aren’t the magical cure. Anxiety doesn’t have an off switch and isn’t something that an individual can just ‘snap out of’. The key elements to effective support are patience, communication, empathy and acceptance. Some of the general ways to support are to:
Anxiety sufferers need understanding, compassion and time. Try to be empathetic rather than frustrated or patronising. As difficult as it can be, remember that the individual is not just being silly or overreacting. They are struggling to stay in control. They often feel bad enough about the situation without feeling any additional pressure from judgement or the expectation to just ‘snap out of it’. Remain calm and reassuring. Reminding yourself that the individual’s anxiety will pass can also be helpful.
Learn about anxiety
Knowledge is power, and the more you know, the more you can understand and provide support. Also, for someone close, learn about their personal anxiety. You may not see the logic behind it but understanding the triggers and process can ease the confusion of the unknown.
Ask them how you can help
Many people are experienced in their own anxiety although, of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they can control it. Asking them to explain how you can help can make a difference when their anxiety escalates. Patience and creation of an environment of trust provide an open forum to talk about their experiences. This facilitates a better understanding of the issues, and what works and doesn’t work when it comes to managing their anxiety.
And then there are panic attacks…
Panic attacks can be very scary for both the individual experiencing the attack and those around them. Again, they can be different for everyone, can come on slowly or arrive suddenly. But here are some top tips on how to support someone experiencing a panic attack.
Encourage them to focus on their breathing
This is especially important if someone is struggling to breathe. Panic attacks often result in faster, shallow breathing which can lead to difficulty in drawing breath. I remember feeling incredibly patronising when trying to help a colleague to come through a panic attack. Calmly instructing someone to breathe, (in slowly through the nose and then out again slowly through the mouth) felt unnatural when talking about something that we have to do to survive. But it worked. Panic attacks are such a heightened state of anxiety that the individual may need the instruction to focus themselves.
Reassure them the attack is only temporary
Panic attacks are temporary. Even though the individual may be well aware of this normally, during an attack, the panic can feel overwhelming and they may not be able to imagine it ever passing. Reminding them that it will pass can be reassuring.
Do not tell them to calm down, relax or show your frustration
Anxiety is not something that can be just switched off. Allowing your frustration to show or telling someone to calm down and/or relax can often lead the individual to feel additional pressure. This can further escalate the situation rather than aiding it’s passing.
When the time feels right, engage them in conversation
This is a distraction technique. It is likely that you will know a little about the individual suffering the panic attack. Engage them in conversation to slowly capture their interest and lure them away from the panic.
If you are interested in additional perspectives, I have listed a couple of really good articles below. Now, a point to note is that two of these articles are told from the male perspective of a wife’s anxiety. Although it is reported that women are twice as likely to suffer from anxiety than men, I didn’t want this to be so completely one-sided. As a result, the third article is told from a wife’s perspective:
10 tips for when your spouse has an anxiety disorder
I found this to be incredibly relatable. Not just from my own perspective, but one that I could see in others. Really recommend a read of this.
Married to someone with anxiety
Another real-life account of life with someone who suffers from anxiety. The article really made me feel emotional. As I mentioned before, the experience of seeing someone you love in the grip of anxiety can be heart-breaking.
Do you have experience of supporting others with anxiety? What are your experiences and do you have any additional tips?