In trying to make more of a commitment to seeing my friends (hey guys), I’ve been thinking about what I want to say if the topic of anxiety comes up. I am fortunate enough to have a really supportive, empathetic group of people in my life, but I know that’s not always the case. And I know, too, that sometimes it feels rude to talk to someone about their mental health even if they bring it up, or you might be unsure of what to say. Here are some things you should know about the people in your life who deal with anxiety.
It’s not our fault. This is not a personality flaw or something that we’re doing intentionally. This is not us trying to get attention – that’s the last thing most of us want. This is not us trying to passive-aggressively tell you that we don’t like you or our friendship is over. This is something that our brains do to us without our consent, not an extension of who we are or a choice that we make. Even though it might feel personal to you sometimes, it’s really not. It sounds like it’s just an excuse but sometimes we honestly just can’t. Our brains interpret discomfort as danger, and often times the things that we think will help actually perpetuate and strengthen the panic over time.
We still want to see you and hang out with you. Even if we say no to your invitations most of the time, we still like to be invited and we still want to see you. Maybe we’d just rather have dinner with you than try to have a meaningful conversation at a work happy hour. When you plan something that you would have invited us to in the past and don’t invite us because you assume we’ll say no, you inadvertently increase our feelings of isolation and the sense that something is “wrong with us”. We know you don’t mean to do that on purpose, but it still hurts our feelings. Inviting us, even when we say no, helps us to understand that we ARE loved, that people DO want to see us, and that we are not broken.
When in doubt, ask. If you’re unsure about how to talk about anxiety, curious about what it feels like for us, or have no idea how to help, ask us. Asking shows empathy and compassion. We hate it (HATE IT) when people say “Don’t worry about it” or “you just need to get over it” or “calm down”. None of that is helpful. Telling us not to worry about it is like telling a mosquito bite not to itch; the more we try not to think about it, the more we do. Your unsolicited advice, or talking about how hard things are for you, too, are so not helpful. And to be honest, they make us want to strangle you, because those things are annoying to hear and they trivialize our experience. We know you’re just trying to connect, but that way isn’t helpful. If you find yourself wanting to say one of these things because you think it will help or because you don’t actually really know what to say, try asking questions or validating. Things like “That sounds really tough” or “I’m so proud of you for dealing with this” or “How can I help?” bring us relief and a sense of belonging. They make us feel like you understand and that you’re not just brushing this off as regular stress. There is actually something fundamentally different about our brains that we can’t control, and validations and questions acknowledge that. Saying “I’m stressed, too” or “Stop thinking about it” imply that we have control and make us feel weak and broken for not being able to stop it. Not that you don’t feel those things – we know you do, and it important to talk about – but they are not the same thing as our anxiety or panic disorders.
Be patient with us. It can be really hard to understand anxiety and the need for down time, especially if you’re someone who likes going at a million miles per hour all the time. Truthfully, we’re probably working really hard, even if you can’t see it. Anxiety management takes a lot of time. I spend about an hour and a half per day meditating, doing yoga, etc. That may not seem like much, but most of us also have full time jobs and relationships that need our attention, too. Add to that the decompression time that we need and there is little time for a social life. So please be patient with us when you want to get drinks tonight and we say we have plans. It is not your place to tell us that watching TV or reading or whatever are “not plans” and we can “skip them”. They are plans. We need that time – to relax, to work on understanding ourselves, to use preventative practices that help keep our anxiety low – and keeping us from it or making us feel guilty about it make the anxiety worse. Just because that’s not how you would spend that time doesn’t make it any less important or valid.
We are still us. While anxiety can be really overwhelming and hard to deal with, it’s just one aspect of our personalities. We are still the complex, wonderful people that you love. We still have hopes and goals and skills. We’re still interested in stuff. We love when you check in with us, and we appreciate it. But we also want you to treat us like the many-faceted people we still are. Anxiety doesn’t wipe out our personalities. It may cause us to hide for a while, but we still want to talk with you about how ridiculous Trump is or this book that we just finished that we loved. We still care about your life and what’s going on with you, and we don’t have to spend every minute of our time together talking about the anxiety.
We’re learning a lot. Odds are, we’re in therapy or at the very least having a lot of thoughts about why this is happening and where it’s coming from. And we’re learning a lot about ourselves, about what we need, and about what we want. Some things about us might change or we may react to something differently than you expected. If there’s something about that that’s difficult for you or an issue, talk to us about it. We can explain our thinking and come to an understanding together.
We love you, and we are grateful for you. Ultimately, even if you find yourself saying “Don’t worry about it” or feeling like you don’t really know us anymore, we still love you. We love that you want to be part of this journey with us, even if you don’t really know how to engage in the conversation or how to handle some of the things we’re going through. Chances are that we are struggling too. We probably don’t say it as much as we should, but we’re so thankful that you are willing to stick with us as we figure this out, that you try to help us, that you want to make sure we’re ok. We appreciate your support in whatever way you try to give it.
This is a lot of information, and I know that it may not all apply to you. Please don’t feel like you have to try to remember all of it all the time. This is a process. We’re learning, too. And while I generalized here, we’re all different, so it’s important to talk to your person who deals with anxiety and/or panic about where they are in their journey and what works for them. Maybe none of this stuff applies to them, maybe some of it, maybe if they read this their reaction to every word would be a knowing head nod. If you really want to know how best to support them, ask.