Breathe: Top 5 things to say or do for people suffering from anxiety
Recently, I wrote about my experience of anxiety and depression and it generated quite a big response, and that's great. Naturally I write about my experiences, my feelings, my emotions and I wouldn't dream of presuming that other people who suffer from the same condition experience it in exactly the same way as me, but there are bound to be some similarities.
Yesterday, I was in an anxiety spiral and it was getting worse and worse. The Husband asked me to try to explain how I was feeling, so I got out my blog post and pointed to the bits that I was feeling. It helped. He understood.
Then he asked that question that a non-anxious type would obviously ask next... "what can I do to help?".
Ah. bugger. err...
I made a decision at the start of the year that I was going to talk about my conditions, that I was going to be open and honest about it, that I wouldn't hide it or lie to cover up the lows. I would tell anyone who cared to listen how it feels so they could better understand.
Oddly, I thought that was the thing, the whole thing. It never occurred to me that understanding wouldn't be enough. That people wouldn't instinctively know how to help. That I might need to explain how to help me.
Now, as I keep saying, everyone is different and everyone will react in different ways but these are the top 5 things that my loved ones have done to really help me. Hopefully they'll also work for you or your loved one, but if not, they may act as a talking point so that you can come up with your own list.
1. Highlight the change in my behaviour
Usually The Husband or my Mum will listen to me talking in a circular manner for much longer than required about something inconsequential that's bothering me, then there will be a small pause before a "....errr, Jo.... you seem a bit... anxious...?".
Often the people closest to me will notice the shift into anxiety before I do, and the sooner it's spotted, the sooner I can start to take steps to reduce it.
You might feel awkward raising the subject, and sometimes The Husband finds it difficult to tell the difference between anxiety and genuine concern over a specific issue, but I still think it's a lot better to be talking about it than trying to hide it.
2. Listen without judgement
When I'm anxious, I want to be able to talk about my worries because externalising the problem often helps it to dissipate, but for me to be able to open up, I need to know that you're not going to judge me. That you'll just listen even if I circle round and round the same concern, even if it seems small.
Telling me that you'll listen and that what I say won't change how you feel about me makes the world of difference. And letting me know that you're happy to listen whenever I need you... just knowing someone is there makes it so much easier.
The hard part is that you will be tempted to offer advice and solutions. That's natural, but the thing about us anxious types is that we're often great problem solvers because we think through every scenario (no really. EVERY scenario) so asking if we've though of doing X, Y or Z will probably just be frustrating for us. Your friends here are phrases like "That sounds hard" and "I'd like to try to understand". If you need to problem solve, try to stick to phrases like "I wonder if...." or "what would you like to happen?"
3. Understand the irrational spiral
Anxiety is not just a thought process - it's also a chemical process in the brain. We all have a part of our brain that's designed to sense threat usually known as the flight or fight response. When it's triggered, it pumps cortisol, the stress hormone, into the body along with adrenaline, which makes you ready to fight or flee. This is a normal, human response and it happens to all of us... it's just that in anxious people that trigger is more sensitive.
Because anxiety triggers hormone release into your body, it can have a cumulative effect. The more stress that I'm exposed to, the more hormones are released and the more anxious I become.
It turns into a spiral that can look very irrational. If we are going somewhere and I'm a little anxious, I might think about 10-20 different scenarios, outcomes or difficult conversations. In the same situation if I'm very anxious it can be hundreds and hundreds.
Understanding this will allow you to work through my concerns with me. Yes, I may have been worried about something yesterday and we may have talked about it, but if I'm still anxious I may be even more worried about the same thing today and we may need to talk through it again.
4. Keep me busy in a healthy, productive way
If I'm occupied, my mind can't spiral out of control and imagine so many bad scenarios. I often rely on writing and crafts to absorb my concentration and still my mind.
If I'm occupied in a healthy, productive way with someone who cares about me, even better still. Over the years, my loved ones have taken me for a walk, taken me out for the day to a museum, art gallery or country house, taken me to the cinema, played board games (Carcassone is my current favourite) with me and, on one occasion, even coloured in one of those adult relaxation colouring books with me.
Do be prepared though for me to say no. Going for a walk may have worked wonderfully last time, but I may not want to this time. It may not feel like a good thing to do. Have some ideas of your own, but be ready to go along with whatever might feel good to your anxious loved one.
5. Spend time breathing with me
Yogic breathing and meditation can really help to calm my mind, but when it's at it's most anxious it can be tough to do on my own. When I'm feeling good, spend some time with me learning some breathing techniques so that when I'm anxious you can talk me through them and help me to focus.
You might feel a bit awkward at first, but breathing techniques can be very effective for reducing anxiety and managing panic attacks.
I hope this list is useful. This is my top 5 things to say or do for someone suffering with anxiety and I hope that some of these work for you and your loved ones.