Anxiety affects millions of people. The disorder can result in strained relationships and missed career opportunities. Learn how to help someone living with the disorder.
Anxiety is a normal human emotion that plays a key role in the body’s stress response. During a fight-or-flight response, anxiety helps a person to quickly spring into action to reach safety when faced with oncoming danger. When temporary and in proportion, anxiety can be a motivating factor to help a person to make decisions or increase performance. Although anxiety has several positive attributes, it can be detrimental to a person’s emotional and mental well-being when it is problematic or present in excess.
An anxiety disorder is a comprehensive term that includes several mental health conditions including panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, specific phobias and generalized anxiety disorder. An anxiety disorder is characterized by extreme and persistent worry, alarm and fright that can cause significant impairment in a person’s day-to-day functioning. Anxiety can vary in severity resulting in negative thought patterns and distressing physical symptoms that are different for each person.
Not only are anxiety disorders distressing to a person with the condition, but also to colleagues, friends and loved ones indirectly impacted by it. It can be challenging to understand how to help someone with anxiety, especially if you have never been afflicted with the condition yourself. However, whether or not you have experience with anxiety, there are several ways to help someone dealing with anxiety.
1. Understand Anxiety Disorders
Understanding anxiety is key in being able to help a person with an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are psychiatric conditions characterized by an excessive amount of apprehension and dread, usually when no imminent threats are present. An anxiety disorder is generally distinguished by extreme and uncontrollable worry that is present along with flawed mechanisms of coping. An anxiety disorder is not necessarily representative of a chemical imbalance and can culminate from learned behaviors during childhood.
Anxiety disorders are common in the United States, as about 1 in 5 adults are diagnosed on an annual basis. Anxiety is a manageable condition that requires effort, consistency and firm resolve. It is essential to encourage and support loved ones with anxiety to seek professional assistance from a licensed mental health practitioner when necessary. Make yourself available, be patient, show empathy and offer reassurance and positivity wherever appropriate.
It is recommended that you educate yourself about anxiety disorders, especially about the particular type of disorder that your loved one has. You can help your loved one to stop stressors and to encourage them to engage in exercise, yoga, meditation or other relaxation practices. Reassure your loved one that they will be able to cope with anxiety or panic attacks should they occur and let them know that you do not view their disorder as a character flaw or weakness. If needs for reassurance become constant, be sure to set some gentle limits and boundaries. Help your loved one seek professional help for their anxiety disorder in addition to being a calming and supportive presence if you are with them when they are suffering from an anxiety or panic attack.
2. Recognize the Signs of an Anxiety Disorder
It is important to show awareness and to be able to recognize the signs of an anxiety disorder when they occur. An anxiety disorder is commonly diagnosed when an individual displays feelings of worry that negatively impact daily functioning for at least six months. Individuals with anxiety disorders usually experience physical and psychological symptoms that encompass emotions, cognitions, actions and physiological sensations.
Signs of an anxiety disorder include:
- Unwarranted worry and irrational fears
- Agitation, irritability and restlessness
- Fatigue and disrupted sleep patterns
- Increased muscle tension, increased edginess
- Trouble concentrating
- Panic attacks
- Avoidance of places or situations
Physical Signs of Anxiety Disorders
Some physical signs of anxiety include increased heart rate, quickened breathing and shortness of breath. Other physical symptoms include increased sweating, trembling, tremors and headaches. Headaches, fatigue and insomnia can be present along with digestive issues, such as nausea, upset stomach or diarrhea.
A panic attack is abrupt, unexpected and involves severe fear and distress that peaks at about ten minutes and generally lasts no longer than thirty minutes. Panic attacks are comprised of physical symptoms such as accelerated heart rate, palpitations, sweating, shaking and shortness of breath. Panic attacks can also involve lightheadedness, chills, tingling sensations and gastrointestinal issues.
Psychological Signs of Anxiety Disorders
An extensive array of psychological symptoms are frequently reported in conjunction with anxiety disorders. Anxiety affects everyone in different ways. Some people exhibit many symptoms, while others may only display a few. Psychological signs of anxiety can include extreme panic, a fearful outlook and a general sense of uneasiness. Individuals with an anxiety disorder may display apprehension, constant feelings of dread and destructive thinking patterns such as catastrophizing, obsessing or ruminating. People may also have trouble concentrating, problems staying on task and experience difficulties with their memory.
3. Know Where to Get Help for Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety disorders are manageable with proper treatment and care. Recommended treatment methods depend on the nature of the anxiety symptoms along with the type of anxiety disorder. Psychotherapy is important in helping people address the psychological symptoms of anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapies are proven to be an effective treatment modality for anxiety disorders. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps individuals change negative and irrational patterns of thinking so that they can change feelings and behaviors. Cognitive behavioral therapy also educates and provides people with effective coping skills to help further reduce symptoms of anxiety.
Exposure therapy is another type of treatment that assists individuals in confronting feared objects or settings. Small instances of gradual exposure are employed while helping people acquire confidence and utilize healthier mechanisms of coping in response to the stressors.
Many medication interventions are used as part of treatment — especially when employed in conjunction with psychotherapy. Getting help for social anxiety disorder often occurs through medication, cognitive behavior therapy or a combination of both. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, anxiolytics and antidepressant medications are commonly prescribed to assist individuals in managing the physical and psychological symptoms of an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders often co-occur with substance use disorders. If you know someone struggling with addiction and an anxiety disorder, there are many ways to help them. Support and encourage them to seek treatment that will equip them with the skills that are needed to address their disorders. Contact the Recovery Village, where licensed mental health practitioners will treat your loved one’s addiction and co-occurring disorders in addition to empowering and educating you on the best ways to support your loved one during their journey to wellness.
Julson, Erica. “11 Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety Disorder.” Healthline, April 10, 2018. Accessed January 20, 2019.
Wein, Harrison. “Understanding Anxiety Disorders-When Panic, Fear, and Worries Overwhelm.” News In Health, March 2016. Accessed January 20, 2019.
The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.