I have anxiety.
What that means is that I have a hard time handling things that other people can do without problems. Talking on the phone, driving to new places, talking to strangers, etc. To most people these things might make them a little nervous, but it’s different for me. These are things that make it feel like the Kill Bill sirens are going off and no one can hear them except me. They don’t make me nervous. They make me anxious, which is a completely different thing.
A lot of people don’t understand anxiety and that’s because they’ve never experienced it. It gets frustrating trying to explain something to people that they can never fully understand. If you’ve never experienced it and you want to help someone that does have anxiety, then there are a few things you need to know.
1. Anxiety is not nervousness.
Anxiety is something that genuinely inhibits peoples’ lives and stops them from doing things that they genuinely want to do. The brain of a person with anxiety works a bit differently than that of someone that doesn’t. We’re not using it as an excuse to get out of doing things. Without us having any say in it, our brains react very badly to things, making life a little bit more of a struggle. Have you ever seen that vine where someone is singing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” but they just keep singing “you better watch out” with increasing intensity and they never get to the next line? That’s what my brain feels like sometimes.
2. A lot of us feel like burdens on the people around us.
I can’t speak for other people, but I’ve heard from enough other anxious people to know I’m not alone in feeling this way. I don’t want to have to ask you to pick me up. I want to drive to new locations without feeling my heartbeat in every part of my body, but my brain won’t let me. If you can’t help me, that’s fine. You are not obligated to give me a ride. I can figure something out. But please don’t make things worse by implying that my anxiety inconveniences you. Believe me, my anxiety is inconveniencing me a lot more than it will ever do so for anyone else.
3. Instead of pointing out what we still can’t do, praise what we can.
For me, pointing out that you haven’t seen progress in one area makes me forget about all the progress I’ve made in other areas. If your friend who’s anxious to speak in class just successfully contributed to the class discussion then tell them you liked what they said. Different things work for different people, but you’ll probably get a better reaction for sincerely praising them for their improvement than focusing on areas in which you haven't seen improvement.
4. Don’t force us to do things you know will trigger our anxiety.
For some people that might be effective, but for a lot of us it will have the opposite effect. Forcing me into a situation that makes me anxious and telling me that it “builds character” will set me back. This does not help me and actually makes me wary of you because you are not respecting my boundaries. Unless a person explicitly says that this is a helpful tactic for them, it’s best not to do it. Exposure over time will help people more often than being forced to face our triggers.
5. Don’t tell us we’re being irrational. We know.
We know that our anxieties don’t always make sense. Logically I know that the worst thing that will happen if a professor randomly calls on me is that I slightly embarrass myself and everyone will forget whatever I said by next week. I know that. But the anxiety will override the logic. I do not have control over it. I can’t tell myself, “Hey, you’re being silly,” and then the anxiety goes away. I wish I could do that, but I can’t. My heart is going to beat out of my chest anyway because that’s just how my brain works.
Note that this list is, of course, based on my own anxiety and everyone’s is different, but your anxious loved one can most likely relate to at least some of these. I hope this list is helpful!