Anxiety and How to Support Someone with Anxiety
In this blog post we are talking about the most common mental health concern in North America and possibly in the world: anxiety.
Almost one out of five Americans suffer from anxiety. People who are struggling with Depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder also experience symptoms of anxiety. I went through a little epiphany a couple of weeks ago when I described a stressful situation with a client interchangeably between anxiety and stress. I realized that even as a therapist, “stress” and “anxiety” can be hard to differentiate from one another. Anxiety can be so easily undermined when explaining this mental health concern to others, which led me to think how hard must it be for people who have anxiety to explain what they are experiencing — especially during the hardest parts of their experience.
Here are some crucial points you need to know about anxiety:
Stress ≠ Anxiety Let me tell you why…
Stress is something that we all experience whether we are at work, school, at home. Stress is your body’s reaction to a trigger and is generally a short-term experience Anxiety is a sustained mental health concern that could be triggered by stress. Anxiety is excessive worry and fear and is strong enough to affect daily life. The intensity of the anxiety or worry is out of proportion to the actual likelihood or impact of the anticipated situation.
Anxiety is crippling and a daily challenge.
Please try to understand that people with anxiety are handling life in an extraordinary way. People with anxiety are handling a lot at once as they are continuously managing their anxiety as they go.
They need to be very mindful, not only taking on the responsibility of being the human they are, but handling something additional on their plate. It would be so great if that effort was validated, celebrated, and congratulated. Because that is worth giving recognition for! Fact: Emotions feel 10x stronger during the peak of an anxiety episode.
How to support someone who is struggling with anxiety:
• Notice what is coming up for you: Pay attention to countertransference. Countertransference is when someone is struggling with anxiety, another person around them can “pick up” the symptoms through something called countertransference. When big emotions like anger, frustration or sadness come up for you, learn to set your boundaries: for example maybe you would rather practice some self-soothing or would prefer talking to them later. And vice versa, please respect their boundaries—even when it comes across as annoying, hurtful or when it seems unreasonable. No means no.
• Dealing with the feeling that they are alone: When someone is struggling with anxiety or when anyone is going through a vulnerable time, they can easily feel isolated and alone in their suffering. People with anxiety need to feel safe enough to attend and experience the big emotions: sadness, anger, or fear—to feel the feelings. Don’t be afraid to ask them what is going on and bring more opportunities for them to speak up about what they are going through.
• Notice their signs of ‘overwhelm’: Try to understand that when someone is suffering, they may push others away even though they don’t mean to. This is because someone is going through the experience of anxiety, they cannot take anything else on—that experience alone is overwhelming! Try not to take them in personally.
• Talk openly about what is happening. Feeling ashamed is often what prevents people from seeking professional help and support. It may also cause some people to deny that they are struggling or experiencing anxiety altogether.
• Reflect on your role as a supporter: Something really important that I see a lot in my clients is the attempt to FIX or SOLVE the other’s experience of anxiety. Remind yourself that it is not your job to be the fixer.
• Instead be an empathetic listener and make it a goal to show up. Supporting someone with anxiety can look like making sure their experiences are heard—that itself can be very reassuring. Reflect what it could look like if you could make a commitment to show up even when and especially when things are difficult.
“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”—Thich Nhat Hanh
Here are two anxiety management coping strategies I practice to when I am going through anxiety:
1. Art as Therapy: Breathing mandala
Take a few moments to notice and visualize your current breath. Create a mandala of what your breath looks like right now (center of mandala) and how your breath can blossom (outer portion of the mandala).
2. The 4-7-8 breathing technique
Practice with the yoga tongue placement (tip of your tongue on the gum between the roof of your mouth and your front teeth). This tongue placement relaxes your neck and head by preventing you from clenching.
Here’s how to practice this breathing exercise: 1. Exhale completely through your mouth to prepare for the exercise 2. Breathe in 2, 3, 4 3. Hold your breath 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 4. Exhale 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 5. Repeat for 4 cycles
Practice this breathing exercise whenever you are.
One of the reasons why it is hard to “manage” anxiety is that an individual with anxiety can seem different from someone else with anxiety.
As a therapist, I am never looking at a “one size fits all” coping strategies package when dealing with anxiety. Learning coping strategies to help with anxiety needs to be individualized to fit the person going through it. Which is why aligning your goals and working with a therapist can be so helpful to manage anxiety.
Hair Photo by Hailey Reed on Unsplash
Red Photo by Chaozzy Lin on Unsplash
Breathing Photo by Pablo Orcaray on Unsplash
Mandala image by Linda Lin