The most commonly occurring mental health disorders in America are the various anxiety disorders, affecting nearly 40 million people who are diagnosed with them. In addition to the people who suffer from anxiety disorders, their friends and loved ones often are left to struggle with the disorders as well. When a friend or loved one suffers from an anxiety disorder, it can be very difficult both for both the person who has the diagnosis as well as the people closest to them.
Anxiety disorders are characterized by fear, social withdrawal and may also cause problems with interpersonal relationships, due to irritation and frustration. Partners of people with an anxiety disorder often become frustrated due to assuming a larger share of common household tasks, and they may have difficulty understanding why their loved ones do not participate more than they do. People who have an anxiety disorder diagnosis report much more frequent arguments with their intimate partners and more avoidance of engaging in sexual activity, sometimes leading to a breakdown in relationships.
When a friend or loved one has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, there are several things people can do to help both themselves as well as their loved one. In order to provide the type of help needed, people should first learn about anxiety disorders so they have a more informed approach when dealing with their loved one's illness. The following are seven main things people should do in order to be a help both to their loved one as well as to themselves when their loved one is dealing with an anxiety disorder.
The first step for people to take is to learn as much as they can about anxiety disorders. Understanding what living with anxiety disorders is like can help people be better able to address their loved one's diagnosis. While everyone experiences fear as part of the body's natural defense mechanism, people who have an anxiety disorder experience anxiety that is intense and overwhelming. This is due to having a biochemical imbalance with the neurotransmitters in their systems. People with an anxiety disorder do not correctly use epinenephrine, norepinephrine or serotonin, leading to them experiencing fear and stress to an inappropriate an extreme degree.
There are multiple diagnoses that fall under the wider umbrella of anxiety disorders. The particular diagnosis received depends on how long the person has experienced the symptoms as well as the particular types of symptoms they express. Diagnoses that are considered anxiety disorders include:
• Generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD
The most common of the anxiety disorders, GAD affects 5 percent of the U.S. Population sometime in life. People who have this diagnosis experience feeling worried almost constantly, even though their anxiety and worry is disproportionate to actual threats that exist. Symptoms of GAD include:
- muscular tension
- sleep disturbances
- restlessness and stress
- problems concentrating
Those with GAD may have significant life-functioning impairments. They normally are characterized as those who are perfectionists, conforming and being unsure of themselves.
• Obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD
Obsessive-compulsive disorders are characterized by obsessive, persistent and uncontrollable images and thoughts. People may also exhibit highly ritualized behaviors that are time-consuming and highly distressing both to the person experiencing them as well as to the people around them. People who have OCD tend to have a hyper-inflated sense of responsibility combined with pervasive thoughts about impending dangers and their need to correct those dangers.
There are many different types of phobias, in which people who have them have an irrational fear of an activity or object. When faced with the feared activity or object, the fear experienced can incapacitate the person.
• Social anxiety disorder, or SAD
SAD is characterized by intense and overwhelming fear of certain social situations. The disorder can be so debilitating that people may be unable to work or handle going out in public. People who have SAD may socially withdraw from their relationships and friendships, losing touch with others and failing to go out and do things they once enjoyed.
• Panic disorder
Panic disorders are cyclical in nature and cause people who have them to suffer bouts of intense fear combined with physical symptoms. The attacks can last up to 30 minutes and often have lasting effects for a time afterwards. After having a panic attack, sufferers normally experience significant fear of the occurrence of another. During an attack, people may have the feeling that they are about to die.
• Post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD
With the many diagnoses of PTSD in returning military service members, this class of anxiety disorders is becoming increasingly prevalent in society. People who have PTSD experience debilitating fear about a traumatic event they have witnessed or experienced. The response of people who have PTSD is intense horror, fear and an overwhelming feeling of helplessness.
• Separation anxiety disorder
Most commonly found in children, separation anxiety is characterized by an irrational and overwhelming fear when the child will be separated from a loved one, even for a very short moment . Children may excessively worry about the possibility of being separated from a parent or from their home. If untreated, children who have separation anxiety disorder are more likely to develop another anxiety disorder when they become adults, such as a phobia, SAD or GAD.
While anxiety disorders as described above can present significant distress to those who are diagnosed with them, the disorders and associated symptoms present common challenges to the people who are close to them, especially people who are intimate partners. Significant others may take on more of the burden of the financial, domestic and parenting duties, leading to resentment and other problems. Common ways in which a significant other may face challenges in the face of their loved one's anxiety disorder include:
• Financial responsibilities
A person with an anxiety disorder may be either periodically or completely unable to work, leaving their significant other to shoulder the entire financial burden. This can lead to significant financial problems and feelings of resentment.
• Family activities
Planned family activities may be disrupted by the person who has the anxiety disorder. Family members may find themselves constantly adjusting their plans to accommodate the diagnosed person. The significant other may also take on more of the responsibilities for completing household tasks, shopping and taking care of children, leaving that person feeling overwhelmed.
• Social life impairments
When a partner has an anxiety disorder, they often will avoid social events and social activities. This may result in their significant other also missing out on these events, increasing a sense of isolation.
• Emotional and relationship needs problems
As the partner with anxiety disorder may be irritable and lash out in an irrational manner, their significant others may feel angry, resentful and bitter towards them. Significant others may then also feel guilt about feeling the way in which they do.
Assuming a role as a supportive person that the friend or loved one can rely on while dealing with their anxiety disorder is important. While it can be frustrating and difficult at times, remembering that anxiety disorders are not permanent and are ones from which the friend or loved one can recover is important. Here are some things people can do to provide the needed support to their friend or loved one:
• Be available and be an empathic listener
Simply being available and open can be very helpful to people who have an anxiety disorder. Their friends can let them know they are always available via telephone anytime the other person needs to talk. Then, when the person who has an anxiety disorder calls, they should then listen openly and without judgment.
• See them regularly
When a person has an anxiety disorder, simply spending time with others can help them think less about their anxiety while also encouraging prosocial interactions. People should take the time to regularly visit and spend time with their friend or loved one who has an anxiety disorder. They should avoid doing any activities with them that involves drinking alcohol, however, as drinking can cause a person with an anxiety disorder to experience therapeutic setbacks.
• Encourage them to seek treatment and to stay with it
It is often difficult for people who have mental health disorders to seek needed treatment and then to stick with it. Due to the large social stigma attached to mental health problems, some people simply avoid treatment. Encouraging friends and loved ones who have anxiety disorders to seek help and then to continue seeing their therapists and to take prescribed medications can go along way towards helping them recover from their anxiety disorders.
Studies have demonstrated that regular exercise is helpful for people who have either anxiety or depression. Encouraging the person with an anxiety disorder to go on daily walks or jogs while talking may help improve their mood. Some studies have demonstrated that people who have anxiety disorders but who also exercise regularly are less likely to experience panic symptoms when faced with a stressful situation than those who have anxiety disorders but who do not exercise.
Those with an anxiety disorder have problems with the chemicals involved in the body's fight-or-flight response. They experience physical symptoms associated with fear. Scientists theorize that exercise has a positive effect because during exercise, people have faster heart rates, sweat more and experience other physical effects that people might also experience with a panic attack. This may help those who regularly exercise identify the physical sensations more with the exercise and have less of a fear reaction when experiencing them.
While it is ultimately the person who has an anxiety disorder to actively participate in their own treatment, friends and loved ones can help them with the process. Commonly, psychologists will give people with an anxiety disorder homework to complete, such as going into a normally anxiety-producing situation or attending a social event. Their friend or loved one can help by making certain the person follows through while also going with them for support. People can also do other things, such as role-playing with the person about how they can handle different situations and stressors. People may also help by making certain the person sticks to a behavioral contract signed with their therapist regarding controlling anxiety or reducing ritualistic behaviors.
Just as important as knowing what to do to help a friend or loved one with their anxiety disorder is understanding what is not helpful. It is very common for people to make the mistake of approaching a loved one's anxiety disorder in the wrong way, ultimately hindering their progress rather than helping them to improve. Here is what people should not do:
• Don't help the friend or spouse avoid an anxiety-producing situation
Many people think they are helping when they assist their friend or loved one with avoiding an anxiety-producing situation. This does not help in the long run, however. People must gradually face their fears in order to overcome them.
• Don't criticize the friend or loved one's irrational fears
It is not helpful to criticize a person's irrational anxiety and fear. People who have anxiety disorders already understand that the fears they experience are irrational. When they are criticized for them, they may simply feel worse about themselves.
• Don't make the assumption that you know the loved one's or friend's needs
Instead of assuming that a person knows what their loved one or friend needs, they should instead ask them and then listen carefully.
• Don't expect an overnight recovery
It takes time for people to overcome an anxiety disorder. Just because a friend or loved one has started treatment and began taking prescribed medication does not mean the anxiety disorder and its symptoms will be suddenly gone. It takes a long time to treat an anxiety disorder, so patience and understanding during the process is of utmost importance.
When you are trying to help your friend or loved one to deal with their anxiety disorder, it is easy to forget to take care of their own needs. People should not neglect themselves in this way, as doing so can lead to significant stress and burnout in the long run. People who do not take time to help themselves while being overwhelmed by another's anxiety disorder may also develop concomitant problems of their own, such as depression or other problems. Here are some things people should remember to do:
• Continue pursuing enjoyable interests and activities
Many people make the mistake of neglecting their own interests, hobbies and activities while being consumed by their friend's or loved one's anxiety disorder. People should not neglect themselves in this way, but should instead pursue the activities that they enjoy. Taking a break from the stress of dealing with another person's anxiety disorder is important and can help people be happier and more fulfilled in their own lives.
• Rely on an established support network
People need to make certain they have a strong network of supportive friends in whom they can confide about their friend's or partner's anxiety disorder. Having trusted confidants with whom to discuss problems can help.
• Establishing firm boundaries
For those who are dealing with a loved one or friend who has an anxiety disorder, setting clear boundaries is vital. Letting the other person know what they are willing and unwilling to do can help prevent friends and loved ones be overwhelmed with dealing with the person's anxiety.
• Seeking professional help
Especially for partners or spouses of those who have an anxiety disorder, the disorder may be significantly stressful for them as well. If significant others begin feeling depressed or overwhelmed, they may benefit by seeking help from a therapist or doctor themselves. They may also want to consider joining a support group for families of those who have anxiety disorders to learn the coping mechanisms others find effective.
Anxiety disorders can evince during any stage of a person's life, making them difficult for the loved ones and friends of those who develop them difficult to understand. By taking steps to both understand anxiety disorders while then assuming supportive roles that do not enable the person's maladaptive behaviors, the friends and loved ones of those with anxiety disorder can help them improve as they move along the path to recovery through treatment.
American Psychological Association, Monitor on Psychology, “The Exercise Effect,” Kirsten Weir, Dec. 2011.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “Facts and Statistics,” Accessed on April 24, 2015.
National Institute of Mental Health, “Any Anxiety Disorder Among Adults,” Accessed on April 24, 2015.
New York Times, “Generalized Anxiety Disorder In-Depth Report,” Accessed on April 24, 2015.