What Does – and Doesn’t – Help When Someone is Anxious
Today my anxiety really flared up. I suddenly found I had less time to get to a bus that took me to a train that took me to another bus that took me to a hotel. And if I missed that last bus in the chain, there wasn’t another for five hours. And I still had to pack and get dressed and eat cake and just, in general, get ready.
And this freaked me out – or, put another way, this created some instantaneous, nasty stress and anxiety. My mother tried to help with the anxiety. It didn’t work.
Yes, I Suffer from Clinical Anxiety
Now, I don’t talk about my anxiety much but, believe me, I have it. Pretty much every day I’m gripped by some form of anxiety, sometimes it can get really bad and sometimes I even resort to PRN (as-needed) medication just so I can breathe for a few hours.
And this situation made me anxious.
What Doesn’t Work When You’re Anxious
I was honest with my mother and told her I was experiencing anxiety. Now, she doesn’t know that when I say that, I mean, “I’m experiencing a clinical amount of anxiety and I need to take care of myself.” So she did something completely reasonable – she tried to talk me out of it.
And I said to her, “This isn’t helping.”
And she responded, “Well, it should be.”
Ah. Yes. I appreciate that. I do. The thoughts of someone who doesn’t experience clinical anything doesn’t understand that illnesses don’t respond to that technique. Don’t get me wrong, I use logic and self-talk as coping skills every day but when she started telling me why I shouldn’t be anxioius all I heard was, “I’m not acknowledging your genuine experience and symptoms. I’m ignoring how you feel. What you feel isn’t real.”
This conversation could have happened around any mental illness symptom, not just anxiety. And people mean to be helpful. They do. But their inclination to help in that way doesn’t work.
What Does Work When You’re Anxious
Much better would have been, “I understand that you’re feeling anxious. Is there anything I can do to help?”
Now, had she have asked that question, I would have probably said, “no,” but that’s just me. Nevertheless, I would have appreciated the question. I would have appreciated her acknowledgement that my illness was real. I would have appreciated that she recognized that she didn’t understand what to do. I would have appreciated that she was turning to me, the universal expert in how I feel, for guidance. The question likely wouldn’t have fixed anything, per se, but acknoledgment of feelings goes a long, long way, maybe not in curing them but in dealing with them.
What Works and What Doesn’t When Someone is Anxious
So this is a little lesson to all the loved ones dealing with another person’s emotions, like anxiety, that they don’t understand. You should acknowledge the other person’s reality – whatever that is – and then ask how you can help. You may not be able to help. In fact, it’s likely that you won’t be able to help the symptom of a mental illness. Still, it’s a much better way of dealing with it than many of the other options.
And finally, a lesson for me: when someone asks if they can help – let them. My inclination, as I said, would have been to say, “Leave me alone,” to a help query. But I need to do better than that. Because people can help relieve anxiety if they take care of something small for you. In the end, my mother actually waited for a few minutes with me for the bus and I think that was nice. I think having another person there for a moment was calming rather than waiting and pacing in circles worried that something was wrong. I didn’t ask her to do it, but I could have. I might have felt better and she might have felt better, too, knowing that she had helped.
Because things do work when dealing with anxiety and other mental illness symptoms but, often, both parties have to be open to finding solutions.
About Natasha Tracy
Natasha Tracy is an award-winning writer, speaker and consultant from the Pacific Northwest. She has been living with bipolar disorder for 18 years and has written more than 1000 articles on the subject.