Relationships and anxiety disorders: communication tips

You've probably noticed that not only does your anxiety interfere with your life, but it affects everyone around you:

  • You get angry when you're well-meaning family member says, "just go ahead and do it. Just try." The person trying to help you gets angry when you say, "I can't" and won't try.
  • You get embarrassed when your boss sees you walking up 10 flights of steps rather than taking the elevator. Or your boss gets impatient when you waste valuable time taking a train, rather than flying, to an important meeting.
  • You feel sad when you can't pick your child up after school because you're afraid you will have a panic attack while driving. Your child feels neglected when she is the only student waiting for mom to take her home.
  • You feel lonely when you think that no one around you understands what you are going through. Your family and friends feel helpless - they want to help but always sense that they are doing or saying the wrong thing.

So how do you navigate relationships and anxiety disorders?

Relationships and anxiety disorders: Start with clear communication

In order for people around you to help they are going to need some education. Who is in a better position to educate someone who knows exactly what it's like to have your anxiety? That, of course, is you. You can't expect someone who has never experienced your anxiety or a panic attack to know what it's like. Getting angry and frustrated at someone who does not understand or appreciate the terror you were afraid of experiencing when confronting a frightening situation is a futile effort. Instead, let's look at a more appropriate way of helping those people who want to help you and who's help can make your treatment more successful.

Explain that the fear is real

To begin with, it's critical that you help your support person understand that your fear is real, it is not imaginary, and it is not the same fear as the fear a non-anxious person experiences. You might ask those trying to help you to imagine what it feels like to be on a roller coaster for the first time, especially the first drop. Then ask them to imagine experiencing the same intensity of panic and terror while doing the thing you are anxious of (social situations, riding on an airplane or driving on a highway). Let them think about that for a while. You might help them focus on the physical sensations as well as the feelings of loss of control. Then add to that the inappropriateness of the reaction which leads to feelings of shame, embarrassment and fears of having something terribly wrong with you. Give them a copy of the "dear friend" letter (edit the letter and make it your own), asking them to read it carefully and then discuss it with you.

Explain what you need

Remember also that you are probably a master at hiding your anxiety having learned all sorts of ways to manipulate situations so you won't "get caught. " And yet, at the same time, you secretly wish that the people around you would be "sensitive enough" to realize when you were experiencing difficulties and, in some magical way, be able to help you. Just think of the dilemma you are putting even the most sensitive of your support people. You're saying, "I'm not going to tell you that I am experiencing difficulties, nor will I ask for your help, but you should just know and be able to help me." Everyone loses! Instead, begin to think about your anxiety as a shared problem by you and the people close to you. Make it your responsibility to tell your support person that you are having a problem and would like help. Simply begin by saying, "I am feeling anxious and would appreciate your help." The more specific you can be with regard to your feelings and the help you want, the less trapped you will feel and the more help you will get. Although this may seem very difficult for some people, since embarrassment and pride often stand in the way, the results are always POSITIVE. Communication is opened up, the need to hide and manipulate is no longer there and the joint effort produces pride and feelings of accomplishment for both you and your support person. In addition, the pressure to perform is off, thus making it easier for you to confront your phobic situation.

Explain that your needs may change

In your efforts to let your support person know exactly what is helpful and what is not, be sure to explain that your needs may change from time to time. One time you may need help or someone to talk to, another time you may not need that. At times you may want to be left alone. It is helpful to explain these inconsistencies and needs have to do with the unpredictable chameleon-like nature of the anxiety itself and should not be taken as a personal rejection.

Decide what your "out" will be and agree how you both will handle it

Anxious people always need an OUT and it is helpful to decide with your support person what your out will be prior to entering the fearful situation. For example, if you're hesitant to go into a crowded theater for fear of panicking and having to leave, you may say, "I can go to this event with the understanding that if I want to leave at any time it will be OK even if it is in the middle of the performance." Explain to the person helping you that just knowing that there is a way out - that you will not be trapped - will enable you to enter the fearful situation. And, explain that it is important to you that he or she be willing to accept this without being critical or judgmental.

Explain that there will be ups and downs as you get better

A common concern for many with anxiety is that as they begin to get better, and are able to do things they previously were unable to do, more and more will be expected of them. This is often what happens because the person or persons helping you do not understand the healing process. It is possible to do something 10 times without any difficulty and then feel as if you can't possibly do it again. Or, just the opposite. You may be unable to do something and suddenly just go ahead and do it without any difficulty. This is a common experience. It is important to explain this to your support person at a time when you were not feeling anxious and can discuss it calmly. You want to take each situation as a separate event.

As you develop more confidence, continue being sensitive to others

It is also helpful to keep in mind that roles and relationships often begin to change during and after improvement. For one thing, prior to your improvement you have been so preoccupied with anxious thinking that other emotions have been ignored. Much of your time and energy has been spent trying to avoid and manipulate situations which you feared would trigger fear or a panic attack. You have probably felt that you "used up" your rights to ask for anything. Feeling guilty and overly demanding with your needs, you have probably felt that you have no right to assert yourself in other areas. Thus, many emotional needs have been ignored and the resulting frustration has further perpetuated anxiety and added strain to your relationships. As you become more aware of your emotional needs and more assertive, people close to you may begin to feel threatened and confused.

It's important for you to be open and communicative and, at the same time, sensitive to the needs of those around you. If you previously were home when your partner came home and now you were out and about, make sure you call or leave a note indicating you are out and will return later. Be sensitive. If you always asked a certain friend to accompany you places and now feel you can do it on your own, make sure that your friend understands this and doesn't feel neglected. Communicate these things. Or, if a coworker is used to waiting by the elevator in the morning to accompany you to your office, let him or her know how much you appreciated that in the past. Be careful not to just "stop needing" someone without discussing what's going on.

As you work towards overcoming your anxiety, friends and family members may begin to feel less needed. It is not uncommon for well-meaning people to attempt to keep the anxious person passive and dependent because of their own fears and insecurities. Just be aware of this, be sensitive and keep moving forward on your own progress.

Ideas for finding support

What if after all your efforts your friends and/or family members are still not supportive, or if there isn't anyone you feel comfortable enough to call as a support person? Does this mean you will not make as much progress as those who have support people around them? Absolutely not! It just means that you have to be a bit more resourceful in recruiting a support team.

One good place to begin is to join an anxiety treatment group or a meet up in your local area. Pick out someone in that group that you feel comfortable with and ask if they would practice with you. Suggest a joint practice session where you can be helpful to each other for example if you are afraid of driving and the other person is afraid of being in a shopping center, you can accompany each other and switch roles depending upon where you are. You might also suggest contacting each other by phone if either of you need some words of encouragement or a pat on the back. Anxious people tend to be supportive and helpful to each other and like being needed. An extra bonus is that you are likely to end up with a new friend.