By Jim Vogel
Supporting a Friend with Anxiety: Are You Helping or Harming?
Anxiety can be a very difficult illness to understand. It varies so widely with each individual that even if you experience it yourself, you may not understand someone else’s.
When you spend time with an anxious person, you may be a little unsure how you can help or make things easier on them. Should you convince them to do something they’re not sure about? Should you listen to what they say, but back off and accept their decision when they decline an invitation?
Supporting an anxious friend in addiction recovery can be confusing. We’ve tried to make the process a little more clear. Here are a few tips on spending time with an anxious friend. Then, we invite your question(s) at the end.
Don’t Be Offended When They Cancel
THE PROBLEM: Sometimes a person struggling with anxiety will plan an event or a meeting far in advance. By the time it arrives, they have had so much time to dread it that it is the last thing they want to do. This may result in last minute cancellation.
It can seem as though this behavior is saying that they do not want to spend time with you, that they don’t care about your feelings, or that they’re just flaking for no good reason. However, in reality, they are most likely at home, panicking that they made you upset but being unable to force themselves to go out.
WHAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT: Be understanding. Let them know that it’s okay and that you’ll see them next time they’re available. It is important that you let them know that you aren’t angry, that you don’t hate them, and that you are willing to reschedule.
Don’t Pressure Them
THE PROBLEM: Sometimes certain locations or activities will seem harmless to you but trigger anxiety in your friend. It’s okay to double check that they are definitely not willing to go or participate but continuing to push them into an uncomfortable situation will do nothing more than drive them away.
WHAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT: Even if you can’t understand why they’re anxious, you do need to respect their feelings. What seems like nothing to you is a big deal to them, and their feelings remain valid even if the reason seems nonsensical.
It can also be beneficial to learn what activities cause them anxiety and avoid inviting them. Having to turn you down over and over again can be a cause of anxiety in itself. Respect that they do not enjoy certain activities and don’t make them feel guilty for refusing to go. Instead, you can always say, “You’re welcome to come if you decide you want to go.” This will allow them to feel included yet eliminates the need for them to refuse. Instead, they can be comfortable about their decision not to attend.
Perform Small Tasks That Make Them Anxious
THE PROBLEM: For some people with anxiety, the most difficult part of their day is ordering food at a restaurant or talking to someone on the phone. Forcing them to do these things themselves will not desensitize them; it will only make their day harder.
WHAT YOU CAN DO ABOUT IT: Instead, do some of these things for them. Give the waiter both orders instead of making them relive the interaction for the rest of the day, dissecting it for where they may have embarrassed themselves. Being sensitive enough to perform anxiety-inducing tasks for your friend will make them more comfortable spending time with you, happier, and less nervous for the duration of the day.
Finally, Keep in Touch and Check in Often
Talking on the phone with a friend who experiences anxiety can be super helpful. Making a check in call for a few seconds is no hardship for you, but it means the world to them. Just how important is a check in?
A support network is critical for people with mental illnesses. Too often, mental illness can spiral into addiction as a coping mechanism and can even lead suicidal thoughts. Even mild anxiety can become something far more serious if the person feels isolated and misunderstood. For example, alcoholism is common as the effects of alcohol can reduce anxious thoughts. But unfortunately, it can also cause suicidal thoughts and actions.
In the end, you do not need to be a trained counselor to support an anxious friend. You simply need to be understanding.
Anxiety after addiction: Your questions?
Please leave us your questions about anxiety and addiction recovery in the section below. We’ll do our best to respond to your personally and promptly!