Most of us will feel anxious at some point in our lives, especially around big events like job interviews, exams, or public speaking. But people who have an anxiety disorder will experience more than a few butterflies in their stomach. Symptoms can be on a spectrum ranging from nagging daily worry to full-blown panic attacks.
There are an estimated eight million people living with anxiety in the UK, and women are more likely to suffer from it than men. Anxiety is one of the most searched terms by people seeking support for their mental health.
Anxiety is the feeling of fear and dread in anticipation of a future threat. When someone is anxious, in response to a perceived threat, their fight-or-flight mechanisms are triggered and adrenalin surges through their body. That’s why anxiety can have a physical as well as an emotional effect. Yet that adrenalin can be triggered even when the threat is minor, or imagined. And the threat feels real to them. The person with anxiety may find it difficult to regulate their emotions once the adrenalin has been triggered, and they may behave in unhelpful, sometimes obsessive or compulsive ways, or in avoidant behaviours, to help them escape their fears.
Symptoms of anxiety
The manual that psychiatrists use to diagnose generalised anxiety disorder includes the following symptoms and behaviours, which you may recognise if you have someone in your life suffering from anxiety:
- Excessive worry about a variety of events, activities or topics that lasts for at least six months – even when there is nothing wrong. They may even start to worry about worrying, and spend a lot of their day worrying.
- They find it difficult to control their worrying and need constant reassurance.
- They may have some of these symptoms: often on edge, becoming tired easily, lower levels of concentration, higher levels of irritability, muscle aches, difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, and sometimes anxiety may cause nausea, dizziness and sweating.
- The anxiety symptoms may affect their day-to-day functioning, such as in social situations (for example, cancelling a meet-up at the last minute) and in close relationships.
- The worrying isn’t down to illness or other physical explanation.
How to support someone with anxiety
It can feel exhausting to be around a friend, family member or loved one with anxiety, especially if they are constantly hyper vigilant to the tiniest threat. It’s said that anxiety can be contagious, and you may feel anxious being around them. If their symptoms are frequent and extreme, you may want to suggest they have a chat with their GP to see if medication might be appropriate. Anxiety may not go away, but it can be managed. In our experience as psychotherapists working with people with an anxiety disorder, there are ways they would like to be supported by their loved ones:
Take them seriously
People with anxiety hate not being believed. The threat they perceive may be minor, but their response to it may be major. They often can’t differentiate between high and low threat. Their condition isn’t just in their head. It can manifest in physical symptoms too. Don’t belittle or dismiss them.
Accept they’re not doing it on purpose
The person with anxiety isn’t being jumpy on purpose. The system that regulates their anxious responses is out of check and they struggle to regulate it. The more you understand about their anxiety and their triggers, the more patient you will be.
Reassure where you can – but set limits
One of the antidotes to anxiety is evidence that the threat is not there any more. Anxiety sufferers often seek constant reassurance. For example, if the person is anxious about you driving somewhere, you may want to text as soon as you arrive. Agree that you will do this in advance so they know what to expect. Don’t be dragged into a circle of constant reassurance, however. You can’t be available 24/7 to soothe someone’s anxiety.
Don’t let them sit with not knowing
A major source of anxiety is not knowing. If there is a void of communication, the anxious person can fill that void with catastrophic thoughts and worst-case scenarios. If you’re busy all afternoon, tell the person they won’t hear from you until after 6pm, for example.
Encourage them to help themselves
Exercise, meditation, yoga, breath work, journaling: these are all self-help tools that can help someone with anxiety manage their symptoms and their triggers. It’s hard to be anxious when you’re pounding the treadmill or concentrating on deepening your breaths. You may also want to help them identify ways of bringing themselves down from the adrenalin high – whatever brings them back into their body. This could be a calming image, a scent or a sound.
Seek professional support
Therapy, including cognitive-behavioural therapy and longer-term psychotherapy, can help the anxious person identify their triggers and learn ways to manage them. Therapy can also work on the root causes of anxiety, which may reach back into childhood.
If you or your friend or loved one would like to take the first step into seeking professional support for their anxiety, call our reception team on 020 8673 4545 and they will match you with a therapist experienced in working with anxiety. You can also book your session by emailing email@example.com