Helping the Anxious – A Five-Step Plan

Anxiety and panic disorders are a real bummer. Your stomach tightens to the point where you can’t take a deep breath, and there’s a low-level hum to your insides that distracts you from all the things you’re supposed to accomplish. You feel vaguely flu-ish almost every day. Sure, it sucks if you’re the person troubled with these ailments, but it is equally difficult to stand by and watch someone you love suffer. I’ve compiled a list to help the loved ones and caregivers of those who are travelling through the darkness of mental illness.

1) Help your friend find the right doctor.

The help I received ranged from the absurd to the sublime. I had entered into an easy, comfortable relationship with the therapist I had seen for years.  My decline into panic left him as perplexed as I was, and I found it difficult to find someone else to help me. One doctor told me “just be grateful you don’t have cancer”. Another doctor took out a blond-haired doll and said “pretend this is you as a child.  What would you like your young self to hear?” Both techniques have merit and may have been helpful for some, but these approaches were completely unsuitable for me.  The cancer comparison left me feeling guilty and I’m a brunette who gets freaked out by dolls, so neither approach worked. Yes, it was intimidating to start over with a new therapist.  I came up with all sorts of excuses: I don’t want to tell the whole story of my decline over and over. I don’t want to go too far from home. I’m comfortable with him and he helped me in the past.

Let me be clear: I don’t care how convoluted the story of your illness is – it will take no more than 20 minutes to recount it.  I don’t care how far from home the right doctor is, because they will treat you, find a solution and your appointments will become fewer and fewer as you get better and better.  Finally, just because a beloved physician has helped you in the past, they cannot be expected to treat every disorder.  If your mental health changes, find a specialist to treat that particular illness. This is where having an army of caregivers is helpful, as they can make the appointments and make sure you keep them.

2) Make them comfortable, but not too comfortable.  

At my worst, I was incapable of leaving the house to go grocery shopping. Getting downstairs to do the laundry was an insurmountable task. Helping your friend in the areas of household chores and maintenance would be welcomed. However, the most growth and healing I experienced was when I was left on my own. For instance, I became accustomed to having my husband drive me to the hospital for therapy three days a week. The day that he gently explained that he had an important meeting at work and he couldn’t take me was the day I got back behind the wheel of a car. It was dreadfully uncomfortable. My heart raced as I gripped the wheel and an invisible dark force wanted me to turn around, go home and back into the safety of my bed. But I didn’t give in to the darkness.  I knew the hospital was helping me and I simply had to get there.  The pride I felt when I made it there – and home – on my own gave me a tremendous amount of confidence. Slowly, I regained the ability to go out by myself.  If you stick to what’s easy and comfortable, you’ll never grow.  This applies to fitness, to education, and, yes, to the recovery from mental illness.

3) Text and email are better than phone calls.

I can’t tell you the number of times I hit the “decline” button on my phone when it rang. This is an example of the polarity of mental illness: I wanted to be left alone, but I didn’t want to feel alone. Friends: don’t take this personally. While I wasn’t up for a conversation, I loved hearing the text message ding, I loved reading that you were thinking of me and I wanted to hear all the things happening in your life.

4) Suggest low-interaction activities.

The thought of sitting and conversing over coffee exhausted me. Any face-to-face time made me feel like I had to seem ok, even though I wasn’t. I felt pressure to talk and smile even though my insides were shaking and my head was heavy with worry. A movie, on the other hand, is the perfect excuse to get out of the house and involves little or no mental exertion. Being in a dark theatre, next to someone who cares for me, swept away in a story for 90 minutes was just the break my overwrought brain needed.

5) Re-label.

I firmly believe that children live up to the labels we use to describe them and adults are no different. It was easy and comfortable to live up to the description on my medical chart: “suffers from severe panic and generalized anxiety disorder”. As accurate as the word “suffers” is, that’s not how I wanted to be defined. Time for a re-label. While I’d love to see a description of me such as “hard-ass motherfucker, physically and emotionally robust”, I’ll settle for something along the lines of “tires easily but is responsible, dependable and kind”. Pick a few words that describe your friend and remind them that THAT’S who they are. They will live up to your label.

Battling any illness is exhausting and caring for those who are suffering can take a real toll on the caregiver.  Don’t take anything personally be as good to yourself as you are to the person you love.

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