For those fortunate enough not to know, let me tell you: anxiety really and truly sucks. Living with an anxiety disorder goes way beyond the normal stress and worry that everyone experiences, causing those of us who suffer from it to experience the kind of fear and panic you'd expect in an emergency, but during totally ordinary everyday experiences. That can be really scary and even life-threatening depending on the situation, so having friends who take the time to learn how to help their friends suffering from anxiety can literally be a life-saver.
I've struggled with anxiety for basically my entire life, so I've had both the good fortune to have great friends who've been really helpful, as well as the pretty awful experience of dealing with friends and family members who have made things worse. I've learned to adequately manage the things I deal with every day, so that I can be effective in a healthy way. However, there are moments, especially when I've got too much going on in my life or when I'm in a totally new place (even on vacation, 'cause anxiety doesn't give a damn), where things become overwhelming to the point where I start breaking out in hives or struggling to breathe. Having someone around who can be patient enough to help me cope or get help can be the difference between surviving and even salvaging the rest of the day, or spiraling further downward and battling debilitating shame (in addition to the overwhelming anxiety).
As we get older and partner off, particularly if we have kids, we sometimes start to lean on our partners for almost all of our social and emotional needs. Still, regardless of our relationship status, it's so important to maintain our friendships and to have our friends' support when we're going through tough times. Friends are the ones who remind us who we are aside from being someone's partner or someone's mom, which can be a special kind of relief for those of us with anxiety because those relationships, however treasured, are also huge sources of anxiety-amplifying stress. As always, we get by with a little help from our friends, as long as they do the following:
They Never, Ever, Say “Calm Down”
I wish we could delete this phrase from our lexicon entirely. It is never a helpful thing to say to anyone, and it’s especially frustrating for a person living with anxiety. Seriously, if it was just that easy to “calm down,” there’d be no market for sedatives or antidepressants. Folks may mean well when they say this, but it’s actually pretty callous and dismissive to tell someone to “just calm down,” and it only makes things worse.
They Listen And Hold Space
That means really listening, without necessarily trying to offer advice, compare or "one-up" your friend, or swoop in and “fix” things unless you're explicitly asked for a specific kind of help. Your friend isn't a project; they're a capable, worthwhile person looking to you for emotional support.
Anxiety is ruthless. It literally turns your own mind against you, causing you to not only worry endlessly, but making you constantly doubt and misjudge yourself. It can really take a toll on your confidence and sense of self-worth, so having friends who can help remind you of how great you are is incredibly helpful.
They Don't Blame Or Shame Her For Her Diagnosis
There are a lot of potential reasons why a person may struggle with anxiety. Sometimes it’s rooted in past experiences, trauma, or abuse. Sometimes it's brought on by hormonal changes, like during pregnancy and or postpartum life. Sometimes it’s just a quirk of how a person’s brain is set up.
Regardless, anxiety is never someone’s fault, and it’s not something they should be made to feel ashamed of. Respect your friend the same as you would anyone else, and keep their diagnosis confidential if they've asked you to.
They Pay Attention To What Makes Her Feel Better…
Everyone has different routines and strategies that help them deal with anxiety. For some, spending time exercising or a engaging in a favorite hobby is a must. For others, keeping things clean and organized is vital. Good friends don’t necessarily wait to be explicitly told what those self-care practices are. They pay attention so they can help out when they can, like helping babysit if your friend has kids so she can take some much-needed time for herself.
...And What Makes Her Feel Worse
Everyone also has things that trigger anxiety or make it worse. Instead of unintentionally making her life harder, good friends pay attention to what she says makes her feel worse (or what they can see makes her uncomfortable). That way, they don’t do things that undermine her mental health, like inviting a new person to a lunch date without asking if she's someone who struggles with social anxiety.
They Don't Use Her Diagnosis Against Her During Conflicts
Living with anxiety doesn’t mean that a person suddenly has no valid perceptions or opinions. Good friends recognize that other people, friends included, can legitimately disagree with them. They don’t use their friend's diagnosis as a weapon to shame her, second-guess how she sees a given situation, or as a shield to deflect responsibility for their role in a conflict.
They also recognize the difference between holding someone accountable to her actions (as everyone should be) and punishing someone emotionally or otherwise for struggling with something they never asked for.
They Communicate Clearly And Compassionately
This is a big “should be happening already” point that is especially important for folks with anxiety. Making your friend guess how you feel about them, what you want or need, or what you really mean by what you say is never good, but it’s especially hard on someone whose mind will readily fill all of those informational gaps with the worst possible explanations or answers. Please, say what you mean, mean what you say, and do so with compassion.
They Don't Create Extra Emotional Work For Her
Good friends carry their fair share of the emotional labor in a relationship. They don’t make their friend's life harder by creating unnecessary drama, or having unreasonably high expectations for what she can do for or with them when life is feeling especially hard. They also familiarize themselves with what it’s like to live with anxiety (if they don’t struggle with it themselves) to avoid burdening her with having to constantly explain.
They Offer To Help
Even though good friends are always proactively looking out for ways they can be helpful, they also check in when they notice their friend is having an especially tough time and ask if there is anything they can do to ease their burden. Sometimes, even just communicating that they see what their friend is going through and letting them know they want to be helpful can be a powerfully loving message.