Occasional anxiety is a normal part of life. You might feel anxious when faced with a problem at work, before taking a test, or making an important decision. But anxiety disorders involve more than temporary worry or fear. For a person with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time. The feelings can interfere with daily activities such as job performance, school work, and relationships. There are several different types of anxiety disorders. Examples include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder.
Signs and Symptoms
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
People with generalized anxiety disorder display excessive anxiety or worry for months and face several anxiety-related symptoms.
Generalized anxiety disorder symptoms include:
Restlessness or feeling wound-up or on edge
Being easily fatigued
Difficulty concentrating or having their minds go blank
Difficulty controlling the worry
Sleep problems (difficulty falling or staying asleep or restless, unsatisfying sleep)
People with panic disorder have recurrent unexpected panic attacks, which are sudden periods of intense fear that may include palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate; sweating; trembling or shaking; sensations of shortness of breath, smothering, or choking; and feeling of impending doom.
Panic disorder symptoms include:
Sudden and repeated attacks of intense fear
Feelings of being out of control during a panic attack
Intense worries about when the next attack will happen
Fear or avoidance of places where panic attacks have occurred in the past
Social Anxiety Disorder
People with social anxiety disorder (sometimes called “social phobia”) have a marked fear of social or performance situations in which they expect to feel embarrassed, judged, rejected, or fearful of offending others.
Social anxiety disorder symptoms include:
Feeling highly anxious about being with other people and having a hard time talking to them
Feeling very self-conscious in front of other people and worried about feeling humiliated, embarrassed, or rejected, or fearful of offending others
Being very afraid that other people will judge them
Worrying for days or weeks before an event where other people will be
Staying away from places where there are other people
Having a hard time making friends and keeping friends
Blushing, sweating, or trembling around other people
Feeling nauseous or sick to your stomach when other people are around
How Are Anxiety Disorders Treated?
Fortunately, much progress has been made in the last two decades in the treatment of people with mental illnesses, including anxiety disorders. Although the exact treatment approach depends on the type of disorder, one or a combination of the following therapies may be used for most anxiety disorders:
Medication: Drugs used to reduce the symptoms of anxiety disorders include many antidepressants, certain anticonvulsant medicines and low-dose antipsychotics, and other anxiety-reducing drugs.
Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy (a type of counseling) addresses the emotional response to mental illness. It is a process in which trained mental health professionals help people by talking through strategies for understanding and dealing with their disorder.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy: This is a particular type of psychotherapy in which the person learns to recognize and change thought patterns and behaviors that lead to troublesome feelings.
Dietary and lifestyle changes
The Do’s and Don’ts of Anxiety
With that in mind, it’s time to go over some tips for how to help a friend with anxiety. Note that every person is different, and each person has different needs. There are some people that want to talk about their anxieties, for example, and there are others that prefer never to mention it. So even with these do’s and don’ts, it’s hard to know exactly what you should do.
DO let this person know that they can talk to you about it openly, without any fear of judgment. It’s very important that they know that you’re there to lend them an ear, and that you aren’t going to judge them or change the way you think/feel about them based on anything they say – even if they say the same fear over and over and over and over again (because for many, the fears and thoughts are nearly exactly the same each time).
DON’T get frustrated. Remember, anxiety disorders are not just thought related – they’re chemical as well. Those with anxiety really do know that their fears shouldn’t bother them, but as hard as they try they can’t stop, and expecting them to use logic to control their anxiety is extremely difficult, if not impossible.
DO spend time with them as much as possible. You being around them is a bigger help than you realize. In fact, they may not realize it either. But time spend with others is time that makes it harder to think about their anxieties, and that time really does make a difference.
DON’T bring up the anxiety often. This is a tricky one – while you want to be there to talk about it, there are some anxieties, like panic attacks, that can be triggered by thinking about it. In other words, if you ask someone “how are your panic attacks?” you may accidentally be causing them to think about their panic attacks when they hadn’t been previously, which could actually trigger an attack. Let them bring it up to you.
DO tell them to call you anytime, anywhere. Talking on the phone and knowing someone is there to pick up can actually be incredibly comforting to someone that is trying to control their anxiety. Anxiety can make people feel lost and alone. Knowing that someone is a phone call away reduces that feeling.
DON’T let anxiety affect you as well. Make sure that you are working on your own stress and anxiety, because the way you feel can have an effect on the way others feel, especially as you spend more and more time again. If you’re dealing with anxiety yourself, the other person is going to deal with more anxiety as well. Take my anxiety test to find out more.
DO be forgiving. We keep emphasizing that anxiety can change neurochemistry for a reason. Anxiety can make people more quick to irritation. It’s not in the control of the person with anxiety. Ideally, try your best to be forgiving. Let them know that you understand, and that even if it’s not fair you’re not going to quit the friendship because of it.
DON’T expect massive, immediate turnarounds. Unfortunately, controlling anxiety does take time. Those that try to cure it too fast often find they have setbacks that are sometimes worse than the initial anxiety. It’s very important that you understand that curing anxiety can take a lot of time, and even on the way there, there are going to be issues that come up and fears that they’re going to have. It’s natural.
DO exciting activities. Try to be outdoors. Find things to do that don’t involve alcohol (since alcohol can cause setbacks in anxiety treatments). Stay active. Exercise itself is a known remedy for anxiety, and creating new memories can help people cope with some of the stresses of life. So try your best to get out and do things together.
DON’T guilt trip. It can be hard, but you have to remember that those with anxiety often struggle to get out of their own head. They want to relate to you, talk to you, and be friendly, but they have an incredibly hard time dealing with the thoughts they can’t control. They take over their mind and their memories. If you guilt trip to try to get more attention or get them out of their bubble, they may withdraw further.
DO be proud of them when they improve. They’ll be able to see it on your face. Remember that anxiety changes thought patterns and can make people think and feel much more negative, which unfortunately means that many of them are going to interpret your facial expressions negatively, assuming you’re annoyed with them or ashamed of them. Thus making sure to highlight your positive emotions and your pride – and actually being happy when you see recovery while avoiding feeling frustrated during setbacks – can be very valuable.
DON’T give up hope. Anxiety is a treatable condition. The person in your life isn’t going to always feel or believe it’s treatable, and there are going to be times when even you think it might keep going forever, but the reality is that anxiety is perhaps one of the most treatable conditions available today.
DO be yourself. You don’t need to change who you are, and the person with anxiety doesn’t want you to change either. You are close for a reason. Be yourself. The fact that you’re looking for what you can do to help this person with anxiety proves that you’re a good influence in their life. Be positive, have fun, and be the person that your friends or family member loves.
Dealing with anxiety is an uphill battle, and it does take a toll on others around them. Anxiety can strain relationships, and may even cause significant stress on a loved one. Some people find that they actually start developing anxieties of their own.
But a supportive friend is an extremely effective way to treat your own anxiety. Learn from the above tips to better understand how to help your friend, family member, boyfriend, girlfriend, or partner, and you’ll give them the best opportunity to overcome their anxiety and grow closer to you as a result.
If you, or someone you know, suffers from depression, or any other mental health issues, and needs help, please contact the South African Depression and Anxiety Group. SADAG is Africa’s largest mental health support and advocacy group. On this website you will find comprehensive mental health information and resources to help you, a family member or loved one.
Should you wish to share your story, please feel free to contact me by clicking on the green email icon on the top right side of the blog.