Whether it’s a romantic partner or spouse, family member, or close friend, it’s heart-wrenching to watch someone you love struggle with anxiety. That said, anxiety is so prevalent in our society, chances are that if you’re not experiencing it, someone in your life is.
So how can you help without butting in where you’re not wanted? How do you know it’s anxiety and not a super-stressful new job? Here’s how to tell if someone you love has an anxiety disorder — and what you can do to help.
Even Your Best Advice Doesn’t Help
Let’s say you’re known among your friends as the one who can put anything in perspective. Breakup? Fired? Facial peel gone wrong? No matter the situation, you’re usually able to make your loved ones laugh, regain a sense of perspective, and shake it off. But people with anxiety disorders have concerns that aren’t rational; no amount of reason can pull them out of spiraling anxious thoughts or a panic attack.
They Need All the Details, All the Time
Is your friend impossible to make plans with? Do they have an excessive need for details about where to meet, where to park, what foods they should pack for the picnic, and who is bringing the picnic blanket/chairs/hummus? While this can seem controlling and annoying, this need to clarify plans, as well as fill in or change details is all an effort to control their anxiety.
They Avoid New Places and Situations
We all have our homebody moments, but if your loved one has had a change in their social behavior, regularly RSVPs no, is impossible to get out of the house, or cancels at the last minute, they might have an anxiety disorder on their hands.
They Have Trouble Sleeping
Perhaps your loved one is known to lie awake listing off their concerns, or maybe they fall asleep alright, but wake throughout the night. Troubled sleep is one of the signs of an anxiety disorder. People with anxiety also often feel tired because their bodies overproduce adrenaline, keeping them in fight or flight when they should be in Zzz-ville.
They Have Digestive “Issues”
There’s a correlation between irritable bowel syndrome and anxiety disorders, and it makes sense. There are hundreds of millions of neurons in our guts, affectionately known as “the brain in our gut” or our “second brain.” These neurons relay important information to the brain and are a key player in mental health and emotional wellbeing. When the messages are distressed, either coming from the brain or the gut, they travel along the vagus nerve spreading news of anxiety far and wide.
Well, you would be too, if you weren’t sleeping, were constantly running to the bathroom, and experiencing a plague of worry that leads to tense muscles and ongoing waves of adrenaline. If their anxiety is undiagnosed and unmanaged, they may also be irritable because of their inability to control and “fix” their anxious thinking. That kind of ineffective hypervigilance can be exhausting and frustrating.
They Constantly Need Reassurance
People with anxiety disorders are often worried about offending others. After a night out, does your friend text apologies about that joke she made or not being in a great mood? Those are her anxious thoughts spilling out of her head and into your relationship. In a romantic relationship, the need for reassurance might look slightly different. Their insecure attachment may lead them to worry that you don’t love them as much as they love you, and if they ask for reassurance to the contrary, this may come off as neediness.
What You Can Do
When a loved one has anxiety, it’s important not to make them feel as if you are trying to “fix” them. Offer your love and support — compassion and empathy never drove a wedge between people. “Just let them know that you’d like them to feel better because you love them — not because they have to be well in order to be loved,” writes Kat Kinsman, author of Hi, Anxiety. Happiness looks different for different people, she explains; making room for the way your partner is, and making them feel safe and loved are the best ways to show support. Ask what they need, and listen to the answer.
Know when you’ve reached your limit, says Jeremy Tyler, PsyD, clinical psychologist at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “When the anxious spouse starts going down the rabbit hole of ‘what-ifs,’ the partner can gently say, ‘Look, I’m not going to feed into it, and it’s not because I don’t care about you. It’s actually because I care so much about you.”
Lastly, know how important you are, reminds psychologist Karen Young. “Anyone who stays around through the hard stuff is a keeper. People with anxiety know this. Being there for someone during their struggles will only bring the relationship closer.”