Updated: Jul 29, 2021
Everyone worries. How will I do on that test? What if I’m late for work? Is my friend mad at me? And because everyone has some familiarity with worry, it is to think of anxiety disorders as just a more intense form of the nerves we all experience.
Anxiety disorders, however, are a very different experience from everyday anxiety. People suffering from anxiety disorders feel constantly on edge, sometimes fretting over specific issues, other times just overwhelmed by a sense of general worry. And those dealing with these disorders often have a very difficult time controlling their anxious reactions, even when they know they are disproportionate.
Anxiety disorders are very common: nearly 20% of adults in the U.S. experience anxiety disorder in a given year. So, what can a parent or friend do when they see a loved one suffering?
Learn About Anxiety Disorders
As we said, anxiety disorders are more than an amplified version of regular worry. And there is more than one kind of anxiety. Some of the most common are listed here — click on the links to learn more about each variant from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Generalized anxiety disorder: As the name suggests, people with generalized anxiety often feel a pervasive worry, not necessarily attached to specific situations or events.
Social anxiety disorder: Social anxiety involves an intense fear of being judged negatively in social settings. Sufferers to avoid gatherings and are reluctant to speak up in meetings or conversations.
Panic disorder: Those with panic disorder will experience sudden, intense physical symptoms including heart palpitations, sweating, nausea, dizziness, and chest pain. Attacks often appear without warning.
The more you understand what your child or friend is experiencing, the better you can react to their needs and feelings.
Things Not to Say
It is always difficult to know what to say to a person in distress. And with anxiety, our natural instincts can often lead us to say things that are unhelpful at best or counterproductive at worst. Avoid these common responses when you hear a loved one is grappling with an anxiety disorder:
Explaining that there’s nothing to worry about: Often, the more rational parts of an anxious person’ brain know perfectly well that there is little to worry about, but that does very little to prevent the emotional reactions from spinning out of control. And other times, the disorder magnifies tiny worries into monstrous fears; in these cases, saying there’s nothing to worry about comes off as dismissive.
Telling them that everyone feels anxious sometimes: Sure, it’s true, but saying this to someone with an anxiety disorder implies they are making too much of their feelings or that you think they are unnecessarily complaining. It fails to acknowledge the very real difference between everyday worries and anxiety disorders, and is profoundly dismissive of a person’s pain.
Suggesting they sleep more, exercise more frequently, or eat healthier: All of these approaches can certainly help ease anxiety. But when a friend or family member says this, it can feel like they are blaming you and your faulty behaviors for your suffering. It can also sound like the advice-giver thinks anxiety is a simple problem to solve, which can make a sufferer feel as if they are weak for not just fixing the issue.
So, if this is what you shouldn’t say, then what should you do? Offer a listening ear, ask questions, and assure them you are there when they need you.
Seek Help When Necessary
There are many coping techniques and lifestyle changes a person with anxiety can learn to ease the symptoms, but there is no substitute for working with a trained professional. If your child or friend is open to treatment, you can help them find the right therapist by searching the directories of at Psychology Today.
In the most severe cases, a residential placement might make the most sense. There are hundreds of options, each with different specialties, philosophies, and strategies, so working with an educational consultant who specializes in such cases can provide much-needed insight and guidance.
It can be daunting when a loved one is suffering and you are unsure how best to help, but remember that educating yourself and extending empathy are the two most useful things you can do.