3 Ways to Actually Help Your Friends with Anxiety

Did you know May is Mental Health Month? As someone who has lived with near daily anxiety for about a year, this topic is one I care deeply about. Mental health is so often spoken about in whispered conversations or stuffed into the closet of “all the things we don’t acknowledge” because it’s one of those things that makes you feel the most alone in the world but in reality is such a common problem in so many people’s lives. I know from personal experience if we dared to raise our voice about it, we would find so many overwhelming “me too” moments that this dark and scary world would find itself bathed in sunlight.

My own battle against anxiety started about two years ago, even though when I look back on the rest of my life I’m pretty sure I can see its presence even when I was a little girl.  Starting in the summer of 2014, I was working full time as a nanny for kids with special needs, putting 30+ hours a week into an online women’s group as a community manager, and had just moved into a domestic violence shelter to work as their overnight crisis advocate.

I was “on” pretty much 24 hours a day with a schedule whose only consistency was that it never looked the same twice and all three of my jobs relied heavily on my ability to solve any problem that crashed down at any time. I lived in a state of constant alertness handling issues online and with the kids during the day and managing the crisis line and the shelter overnight. I held onto this busy schedule of helping everyone in my little corner of the world like a badge of honor. I loved that I was counted on by so many and was able to solve anything they threw my way.

Fast-forward about six months and living in this constant state of response had started to take its toll on me, though I denied anything was wrong. I started having thoughts race through my mind and spent days obsessing over something I had said or insignificant things that would happen between me and a supervisor or a friend. I started struggling to get out of bed in the mornings and would feel a sense of dread thundering toward me when it was time to take over the shelter at night.

My chest felt like it was wrapped tightly in bungee cords and every time my phone would buzz they were pulled tighter as my eyes filled with tears. I worked as hard as I could to explain this “thing” away for months before finally allowing the word “anxiety” into my vocabulary with help from some gentle friends. In May of 2015 I finally broke down while sitting in my room at the shelter and called my mom to tell her I needed help.

A year later after being diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and trying several medications, things are…different. I still battle anxiety daily, but not every day is as awful as those first ones consistently were. Sometimes my mind betrays me and I can’t get out of bed because all day feels like an anxiety attack that refuses to break. Sometimes my mind is just white noise but my chest will ache, my lungs won’t expand, and I’ll shake all day long, but I won’t have a clue why.

A lot of the days in between these are filled with peace and a feeling of being grounded, excited about the life I live and wanting to fill it with my people, while others feel a bit numb and disconnected. I manage my anxiety now with essential oils, supplements, chiropractic care, long runs under tree lined trails, meditation, counseling, and speaking up about the messy parts of life. I’m still learning how my anxiety manifests itself and how to advocate for my own health so I can keep it in check.

I have a really long way to go but I also have people in my life who are willing to walk alongside me and fight with me and for me. And it’s really the people who have made all the difference. I was so scared of being seen as weak or as a failure when things started caving in that I shut everyone out for fear they’d see what was happening. Now, after not only working to accept this anxious part of me and finding my safe place of inner circle people, life looks different. It looks better.

I’ve seen how mental health, mainly anxiety, looks from both sides of the conversation. I recognize the look in someone’s eyes as their shaky voice talks about what’s running though their mind and I also remember not having the ability to put myself in their shoes at all. It’s a hard thing to really understand unless you’ve felt it grip you. In light of that, I posted this Facebook status a few weeks ago sharing some helpful alternatives to things people say to try to help but are actually hurtful:

1. Avoid saying: "Have you prayed about it/given it to God/listened to what God is doing?": While this seems like the "good Christian" thing to say, it's really very hurtful. I already feel betrayed by my own mind, getting scripture said at me (however lovingly) makes me want to (unlovingly) throat punch whoever said it because it makes me feel like I've failed God too.

Instead try: "how can I help you” or “is there anything I can do?"

2. Avoid saying: "Calm down": in the entire history of anxiety, "calm down" has never once been effective. You might as well ask a charging herd of elephants to "please stop." We have adrenaline coursing through our systems on major levels. "Calming down" would require some sort of major head wound.

Instead try: "I'm with you, you're safe. It will pass"

3. Avoid saying: "What are you so worried about? You can't control it": We know we can't control it, that's why we're having a panic attack. Anxiety isn't worry. It's a deep feeling that something or everything is wrong and you can't fix it. It's like a vice grip around your chest. It's feeling totally out of control.

Instead try: "I don't know what you're feeling, but I'm here with you in it"

Friends, we know our anxiety is hard to navigate, we're struggling to figure it out too. Trying to convince us you know what we're feeling isn't helpful but knowing you're staying with us through it is. We don't need you to fix it...you can't fix it. But when you take the time to sit down in the middle of it, remind us of the truth, and love us through it (meaning accepting it as a part of us, understanding when it gets in the way without making us feel guilty, sitting with us in it) it means the entire world.