Something that always makes my eyes roll when a conversation about anxiety arises (which thankfully, is more often than not in the current age) is hearing people who don’t actually have the disorder give advice on it.
‘Everyone feels like that sometimes’
‘Don’t overthink it’
‘You need to meditate more’
While many anxious people can appreciate that the advice often comes from a good, kind and worried place in itself, more often than not it can make those dealing with anxiety feel like they 1. aren’t doing enough 2. are being condescended or 3. feel uncomfortable to open up about their mental obstacles in the first place. Helping and hindering walk a fine line, ever fervent in an endless tango.
I’ve been on both sides of the room. On the one end, the anxious mind knowing full well that what is making my chest feel tight, my stomach sink and my mind race isn’t worth the worry, yet it persists. On the other side, I’ve been the concerned friend or partner wondering what I can possibly say to soothe the situation. As if there were a bandaid or a perfume you could spritz branded ‘InstaCalm’.
The anxious community’s favourite inside joke is if it really were as simple as willing yourself not to overthink, therapists would have a dire shortage of clients.
I hate to break it to the new wave wellness community, but meditating in isolation is not going to veer anxiety off for good either. That’s not to say it can’t help, but to be effective and find that inner Bodhi tree, it often requires many other disciplines to work together (which, spoiler, anxiety often prohibits).
So, how can we be there for the people we love who are not simply anxious but actually have anxiety, and how can we do it in such a way that doesn’t read like a motivational pillow cushion?
1. Understand the difference between being anxious and having anxiety
Everyone gets anxious, but not everyone has anxiety. (For this article, I’m talking about GAD, or general anxiety disorder).
I am not a psychologist. But, I do know a thing or two about the never-ending battle with the anxious counterpart… ie: the Me vs Me meme.
The first thing to understand is that not everyone feels the way anxious people feel. It might sound like a no-brainer, but for the narrators of many anxious beings’ lives, these chapters of realisation are slap-in-the-face moments.
When you’re anxious about something that in socially acceptable terms ‘makes sense’, this is seen as a typical psychological response. Our brains are designed not to make us happy, but to keep us alive, as Brienna Wiest explores in one of my all-time favourite reads, The Mountain Is You. This means that responses like anxiety are natural, or else humans would’ve been eaten by far more predators than we could count because we simply never had sirens going off in our heads when one came wandering by the watering hole.
However, for the anxious mind, the responses are kicked into overdrive thanks to neural pathways (I won’t get into the semantics of why people have anxiety) and sometimes for situations that don’t even make sense to the holder of the emotions. They can last for lengthy periods of time and lead their human to paralysingly distressed states. A task like catching the Gautrain can feel like going in for heart surgery.
The job of the anxious person’s ally is—contrary to popular belief—not always to rationalise things. There’s a place to say “think about it logically” and a place to say “okay, how can I make this less stressful for you?” One offers another mental loop, the other, a solution.
2. Know when to give advice and when to listen
Sharon Martin wrote a brilliant piece titled It’s Time to Stop Giving Unsolicited Advice, where she tucked into how advice is often criticism in disguise.
When it comes to the anxious people in your world, asking whether they actually need advice or rather need to air their thoughts and feelings can be the difference between building the bridges that allow them to trust you in the future, and burning them.
If it’s a situation where you are not an expert or can’t relate, forcing advice isn’t necessary. It also wastes your energy on figuring out what the best thing to say is as opposed to helping the person find solutions (themselves) with help.
For example, if an anxious person were sweating feverishly over their new job to the point where they considered not even showing up at all, you’d probably want to give them advice on how to cope with a new job. A solution and advice all in one, these conversations can be like word hugs.
But if you tried to give them advice on how not to worry, that advice offers no solution to the sweaty trigger point. On the other hand, if they wanted to simply talk about how they felt about the new job, you might find they can answer their own questions and find solutions all on their own, which sometimes tends to hold more weight as that ‘aha’ moment. After all, people rarely listen to anyone more than themselves – you just happened to facilitate the experience.
3. Learn how to gently introduce coping mechanisms into their life
Blasting anyone with a wellness to-do list, especially when they’re having a rough ride with their mental health, should never be your first call to action.
No one wants to feel like they’re not doing enough – or worse, that they are trying but keep missing something. We are egotistical beings whether we want to admit it or not, and making anyone feel small instead of empowered (even if you didn’t mean to) shouldn’t be on your ally-menu.
Instead, gently introduce the techniques you’ve heard about or want them to try. “Have you tried breathing exercises?” vs “Bestie, let’s do these breathing exercises together.”
As it is with anything new, joining someone can make the whole process a lot less pressurised.
4. Help, but don’t enable
There’s a massive difference between helping and enabling people who struggle with their mental well-being. Helping is the hand that carries something when it’s too heavy for just one person. Enabling can be carrying the entire load – which may put more weight on your own well-being, as well as hindering the first carrier from learning how to manage in the first place.
Especially when it comes to parenting, the instinct to protect is anciently engrained. Still, sometimes when we think we are protecting people from harm, we might actually be allowing them to continue destructive behaviours by not guiding them to cope with the load.
Enabling isn’t always easy to spot. More often than not, it’s love wearing a different hat. Still, the time comes when the soothing becomes the problem itself. This doesn’t mean you should actively force the anxious people you know into things. That’s just traumatic. Instead, it means giving them the opportunity and the tools to try something in a different way.
Coping isn’t a linear process, but getting by with a little help from our friends (or allies) at the very least makes it feel more like a journey and less of a quest.
Feature Image: Etsy