In trying to make more of a commitment to seeing my friends (hey, guys!), I’ve been thinking about what I want to say if the topic of anxiety comes up. I’m fortunate enough to have a really supportive, empathetic group of people in my life, but I know that’s not always the case. I know, too, sometimes it feels rude to talk to someone about their mental health. Even if they bring it up, you might be unsure of what to say.
Here are some things you should know about the people in your life who deal with anxiety:
1. It’s not our fault.
This is not a personality flaw or something we’re doing intentionally. This is not us trying to get attention, that’s the last thing most of us want. This is not us trying to passive-aggressively tell you we don’t like you or our friendship is over. This is something our brains do to us without our consent, not an extension of who we are or a choice we make. Even though it might feel personal to you sometimes, it’s really not. It sounds like it’s just an excuse but sometimes we honestly just can’t. Our brains interpret discomfort as danger, and often times the things we think will help actually perpetuate and strengthen the panic over time.
2. We still want to see you and hang out with you.
Even if we say no to your invitations, we still like to be invited and we still want to see you. Maybe we’d just rather have dinner with you than try to have a meaningful conversation at a work happy hour. When you don’t invite us because you assume we’ll say no, you inadvertently increase our feelings of isolation and the sense that something is “wrong” with us. We know you don’t mean to do that, but it still hurts our feelings. Inviting us, even when we say no, helps us to understand we are loved, people do want to see us and we are not broken.
3. When in doubt, ask.
If you’re unsure about how to talk about anxiety, curious about what it feels like for us or have no idea how to help, ask us. Asking shows empathy and compassion. We hate it when people say things like, “Don’t worry about it,” “You just need to get over it,” or “Calm down.” None of that is helpful.
If you find yourself wanting to say one of these things because you think it will help or because you don’t actually really know what to say, then try asking questions or validating. Things like, “That sounds really tough,” “I’m so proud of you for dealing with this,” or “How can I help?” bring us relief and a sense of belonging. They make us feel like you understand and you’re not just brushing this off as regular stress. There is actually something fundamentally different about our brains we can’t control, and it makes us feel invalidated when you compare it to everyday stress.
4. Be patient with us.
It can be really hard to understand anxiety and the need for down time, especially if you’re someone who likes going at a million miles per hour all the time. Truthfully, we’re probably working really hard, even if you can’t see it. Anxiety management takes a lot of time. I spend about an hour and a half per day meditating and doing yoga. That may not seem like much, but most of us also have full-time jobs and relationships that need our attention, too.
Add to that the decompression time we need and there is little time for a social life. So please, be patient with us when you want to get drinks tonight and we say we have plans. It is not your place to tell us that watching television, reading or whatever are “not plans” and we can “skip them.” They are plans. We need that time to relax, to work on understanding ourselves and to use preventative practices that help keep our anxiety low. Keeping us from it or making us feel guilty about it make the anxiety worse. Just because that’s not how you would spend the time doesn’t make it any less important or valid.
5. We are still us.
While anxiety can be really overwhelming and hard to deal with, it’s just one aspect of our personalities. We are still the complex, wonderful people who you love. We still have hopes, goals and skills. We’re still interested in stuff.
We love when you check in with us, and we appreciate it. We also want you to treat us like the multifaceted people we are. Anxiety doesn’t wipe out our personalities. It may cause us to hide for a while, but we still want to talk with you about how ridiculous Trump is or this book we just finished that we loved. We still care about your life and what’s going on with you. We don’t have to spend every minute of our time together talking about the anxiety.
6. We’re learning a lot.
Odds are we’re in therapy or at the very least having a lot of thoughts about why this is happening and where it’s coming from. We’re learning a lot about ourselves, about what we need and about what we want. Some things about us might change or we may react to something differently than you expected. If there’s something that’s difficult for you or an issue, talk to us about it. We can explain our thinking and come to an understanding together.
7. We love you, and we are grateful for you.
Ultimately, even if you find yourself saying, “Don’t worry about it” or feeling like you don’t really know us anymore, we still love you. We love that you want to be part of this journey with us, even if you don’t really know how to engage in the conversation or how to handle some of the things we’re going through. Chances are we are struggling, too. We probably don’t say it as much as we should, but we’re so thankful for you. We are thankful you are willing to stick with us as we figure this out. We appreciate your support in whatever way you try to give it.
This is a lot of information, and I know it may not all apply to you. Please, don’t feel like you have to try to remember all of it all the time. This is a process. We’re learning, too.
While I generalized here, we’re all different. So it’s important to talk to your person who deals with anxiety and/or panic about where they are in their journey and what works for them. Maybe none of this stuff applies to them, maybe some of it does or maybe they were nodding along to every word. If you really want to know how best to support them, ask.