Suffering from an anxiety disorder is certainly one of the most isolating experiences a person can have. Even among friends and family, it’s often hard to really be yourself because there is a voice in your head, and even if you tried to explain that to the people around you, you’re pretty sure they won’t get it.
The fact of the matter is that most people do want to understand and want to be helpful to you, but for a person with anxiety, explaining how you feel to someone without it can feel like speaking another language. A big challenge for people with anxiety is talking about it in a way that other people can understand. So, let’s look at the best ways someone with anxiety can communicate what they need.
“I know you think you get it, but you don’t”
This is something that is hard to put in a tactful way, but it’s important to get people to recognize the difference between feeling anxious and having an anxiety disorder. You can rationally feel anxious about test results or an upcoming social occasion. But with a disorder, anxiety is your base level, and it can attach to literally anything, and it often can’t be reasoned with. So while everyone gets anxious sometimes, it doesn’t mean they understand anxiety.
“You can’t cure this, but you can help”
Even really well-meaning people can occasionally be guilty of the great misconception about anxiety: “If I can explain in the right words why their fear isn’t realistic, the fear will go away”. It would be great if anxiety worked like that, but they don’t and can’t have the answers. What they can do is speak to you and distract you, by talking or asking about an unconnected topic, until a peak has passed. They can offer you something that may calm your nerves, like CBD oil for example, and then sit with you until you’ve worked through a panic attack. Anxiety will peak and pass (and at some stage peak again); it’s naturally time-limited.
“I’m fully aware this is irrational, and pointing that out makes it worse”
Many anxiety disorders attach to a specific part of life. Social anxiety makes you fear that you’ll crash and burn in a social situation. Health anxiety makes you focus on symptoms and catastrophize that you (or someone else) will become seriously ill or already are. If someone points out that people really like you socially, or that you can’t be having a heart attack because you don’t have Symptom X, that might be expected to be the end of the story. They need to know that you appreciate the advice, but that knowing this usually doesn’t help. In fact, pointing it out can make you feel more alone.
“I might snap at you, but you’re not the problem here”
For someone without the heightened adrenaline that anxiety brings along, communicating with someone who does have it can feel bruising. Anxiety begets irritability, and when a well-meaning person tries to reason with it they can end up on the receiving end of a tongue-lashing they don’t deserve. A thick skin is required to help someone with anxiety, because people (inevitably) get things wrong. They may get defensive and explain that they were just trying to help – it’s worth communicating that you know that, and it’s not them making you react this way, but that it’s part and parcel of helping someone with anxiety.