How To Deal With Someone With Anxiety: Tools To Ease Anxiety In Conversation And Interactions
Updated February 05, 2020
Reviewer Lauren Guilbeault
Anxiety has become something of a buzzword. It comes up often, whether it is talking about legitimate mental health diagnoses, or discussing the presence of anxiety in people today. "Anxiety" is a term used to describe both a diagnosed disorder and a feeling, which can be applied people from all backgrounds, nationalities, genders, and ages, as the condition can affect people from all of these demographics. So, how do you deal with someone who has anxiety?
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety, as a broad term, is a state of fear or uncertainty. As a disorder, however, anxiety is characterized by persistent, unexplained bouts of anxiety, often accompanied by additional symptoms, such as sleep disturbance, irritability, panic attacks, difficulty concentrating, and gastric distress. While general anxiety is usually managed by limiting stress or keeping stressful situations to a minimum, an anxiety disorder has intense, unwarranted anxiety at its root, and usually cannot be managed by simply reducing stressful situations or stressors. Instead, anxiety disorders usually require some form of psychotherapy treatment, and may even require pharmaceutical intervention to alleviate symptoms.
There are five different disorders under the anxiety umbrella: Panic Disorder (PD), Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD), and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Each of these disorders is marked by persistent anxiety, but the root, triggers, and symptoms may all look different. If a friend, coworker, relative, or loved one has any of these disorders, they might be prone to panic attacks, isolating themselves, and reactionary behavior.
What Does Anxiety Look Like, Day To Day?
The life of someone with anxiety depends on the type of anxiety they have, and the severity of their condition. Across the board, however, people living with an anxiety disorder experience high levels of anxiety, without a distinct cause or catalyst. This means that something as seemingly inconsequential as driving to work can be a significant hurdle, and work itself can be enormously taxing. This is perhaps one of the most important things to remember when dealing with someone with anxiety: managing the condition daily can be exhausting. People with anxiety may grow tired more easily and maybe more emotionally spent or introspective than their typical peers.
Anxiety can also mean avoiding certain things or situations that prompt anxiety. For someone with PTSD, this might mean avoiding the scene of a car accident, or the site of an assault. For someone with SAD, avoiding social situations might be the rule of the day. People with GAD may avoid anything that could cause anxiety, as will people with PD, and people with OCD might engage in small (or large) rituals to mitigate some of their anxiety. Day-to-day, anxiety plays a large role in behavior, communication, and thought processes.
What Is The Most Important Aspect Of Dealing With Anxiety?
When dealing with people who have anxiety, being mindful of their condition is key. What might seem like a simple, normal phrase or experience to you can be triggering for someone with anxiety, and can cause fear, uncertainty, or overwhelm to explode. Being mindful of the people around you and the possibility for anxiety is an important part of functioning as an ally to individuals with mental disorders, as many "normal" situations can be enormous sources of discomfort, fear, and uncertainty.
Being mindful of the possibility of anxiety does not mean being paralyzed in your actions or speech, and having to constantly walk on eggshells; instead, mindfulness means evaluating your speech for the presence of bias, stereotypes, and rude language. The term "OCD," for instance, has come to mean any sort of neurotic or phobic behavior, but is an actual diagnosis. Using it as a way to describe someone's personality traits is insensitive to people with OCD and can be triggering or shaming.
Mindfulness also includes considering what someone with anxiety might need. Although it is certainly not your place to act as a therapist, liaison, or caretaker for someone with anxiety, you can take steps to make sure that you include someone with anxiety in social outings, conversations, and meetings, provided that you also let them know it is not required, and that you understand if they must say, "no."
Easing Anxiety In Conversation
Avoid putting someone with anxiety on the spot. Although speaking one-on-one is perfectly acceptable, many people with anxiety are uncomfortable being at the center of attention and will struggle to have the limelight focused on them in big groups. If you are in an office setting, avoid calling an employee out in the middle of a large meeting. If you are with a group of friends, try not to direct everyone's attention to the person in question. Instead, speak to an employee privately, after the meeting, or discuss topics with your friend when the two of you are side-by-side and can be more discreet.
Anticipation can also be a source of anxiety for people. Instead of the dreaded, "We need to talk," or "Can I talk to you?" opt for direct communication, and do not bring up a topic unless you can discuss it at that time. The anticipation of a serious conversation looming over someone with anxiety can cause a dramatic spike in symptoms, or could even trigger a panic attack.
Easing Anxiety In The Workplace
Letting people know exactly what you expect of them is one of the best ways to ease anxiety in the workplace. Uncertainty can be triggering for people with anxiety, so having any sort of ambiguity about a person's role or your expectations can be extremely difficult for anyone with anxiety. Charts, lists, and diagrams can all help ease the mind of someone with an anxiety disorder and can alleviate some of the responsibility of constantly having to go over expectations, rules, or guidelines.
Sensitivity training can also be helpful in a work situation, as it can provide a blanket session regarding how to deal with a myriad of issues, including mental health. Because many people are not familiar with different types of mental health issues and disorders, they might use triggering or inappropriate language without realizing it. Sensitivity training can help bring awareness to the different ways you can be considerate and mindful toward people who have a mental health condition or disorder.
Using Boundaries To Deal With Anxiety
People who have anxiety might struggle setting boundaries for themselves, or might struggle to adhere to others' boundaries, whether these are real or perceived. It is important, however, to set boundaries when you have a friend, loved one, or partner with anxiety, as boundaries can help people with anxiety, and help you maintain a healthy distance. Boundaries need not be extreme or cruel but should be careful and firm in their scope.
An important boundary in a partnership or relationship, for instance, is setting aside time and space for a therapist or some form of therapeutic intervention. Taking on someone else's burdens, fears, and anxiety can be overwhelming, and it can take a toll on your health. To prevent this, have a rule in place that at any time, one or both of you is allowed to say, "This is too much," and the conversation must come to a close, in favor of a therapist or other trusted professional.
In the workplace, a boundary might be setting aside time to stand up, walk around, or engage in some other form of movement if a panic attack or the onset of anxiety arrives, rather than allowing it to control work performance. This allows the employee to question some space to process their emotions while keeping strict boundaries in place during work hours.
Easing Anxiety In Relationships
Whether your relationship with someone with anxiety is a friendship, a familial tie, or a romantic relationship, there are things you can do to deal with and support your loved one. First and foremost, offer support. Support can easily veer off into the realm of enabling, but ideally, support means letting your loved one know that you are there if they need you, that you love them unconditionally, and you accept them for who they are. While this might be a given in many relationships, people with anxiety often feel unlovable or unacceptable in their condition and fear that those around them are annoyed, angry, or exhausted by their needs. Support can also mean encouraging a loved one to seek help via therapy, offering to attend therapy sessions together, or helping complete therapy homework.
Calm communication is also important in a relationship with someone who has anxiety. Communication keeps the two of you on the same level, while calm communication helps keep any misunderstandings, fear, or confusion to a minimum. During altercations, tempers can get heated, but keeping calm will not only make sure you have the strongest relationship possible but will also help your loved one feel as though they are not alone.
No matter the type of relationship you have to someone with anxiety, dealing with an anxiety disorder is difficult at times, and can initially seem overwhelming. With practice, education, and patience; however, you can learn more about anxiety, how it affects people, and how you can best show up for anyone living with an anxiety disorder.