When I was in Grade 8, I began experiencing debilitating anxiety. At the time, I didn’t know that’s what it was. It would start with what I’ve come to think of as a “nervous stomach.” I think we’ve all felt it before: it’s the butterflies you get before giving a speech or that nauseated feeling in the pit of your stomach as you await the results of a high-stakes exam. The problem was that my “nervous stomach” would persist despite a lack of any reasonable source of worry. At its worst, it would give me diarrhea or even cause me to vomit—if I was lucky, I would just feel yucky and lose my appetite.
Then there’s what would happen to my heart. Some anxiety-sufferers will fixate on the racing of their hearts and become terrified that they are suffering from a heart attack. For some reason I have always known that the physical symptoms of my anxiety are rooted in something in my brain rather than being the sign of a physical ailment. I used to wish I had something as “simple” and “acceptable” as a stomach bug or even a chronic disease, something for which I could be hospitalized and doted upon without any shame or embarrassment that my symptoms were caused by something in my head. And while an anxiety disorder, I now understand, is a legitimate health issue with a biological component, the majority of my discomfort has always been in a space that is notoriously hard to treat: my head.
My anxiety has always come and gone with little predictability. In high school I can remember long stretches of feeling very normal, and long stretches of feeling absolutely crippled by my thoughts. I rarely told anyone the truth about what I was going through, so my parents did the best they could without “giving me away”. I would’ve been horrified if my mom called to excuse me from school and told the secretary I was having anxiety; she would always say I had the flu. I remember going up to my Grade 8 English teacher during an anxiety attack and weakly explaining I’d been throwing up on the weekend and could I call my mom to pick me up? It never dawned on me that my school might have resources or support systems in place for me. They likely didn’t have anywhere near the support I saw for my own students once I became a teacher, but I could’ve certainly visited my high school counsellor for more than just a course change … it just never occurred to me or my parents.
During my first year of teaching, I received an email from a student’s mother. It was just a quick note explaining that her daughter struggled with anxiety, so would I please excuse her from class if ever she needed to take a quick walk around the building to calm down or to check in with her counsellor. I immediately wrote back to explain that not only was this not a problem, but her daughter could also always use me as a support person. Her mother told me how much it meant to her daughter to know that a “grown up” struggled with anxiety but was still achieving success in her education and career.
Knowing a “grown up” with mental health issues would’ve meant a lot to me in high school. At just twelve years old, my anxious thoughts had me worried about not only how I would get through the next day at school, but how I would get through situations ten, twenty, even sixty years down the road. (This is called “Catastrophizing” and “Fortune Telling.”) I was convinced that I would never (“All or Nothing Thinking”) make it through any of the important life milestones because of my anxiety: high school graduation, travelling alone, moving out, going to university, getting married, having kids. I can still see what I would envision in my head during really heavy bouts of anxious thinking: grown-up Lindsay, so mentally unstable that she is unable to take care of even the smallest tasks and is a complete shut-in, cared for by her aging parents. (For some reason this was always accompanied by a mental image of myself in a long hospital gown, sitting in a windowless room in a wheelchair.) And yet here I am, grown-up Lindsay, wearing fleece-lined leggings, a toque and a scarf, sitting by a window in my home which is in a different province from my family while my children are in daycare and my husband, whom I met while on a university exchange, is at work … I might not feel like I’m #adulting, but for all intents and purposes, I made it to exactly where I thought I’d never be!
Okay so this introduction is way longer than I anticipated, so let’s move along to some of my ideas for supporting someone in your life who has anxiety. Just as a precaution, it’s important to note that I am not a mental health professional, and I can only speak from my own experience!
Lately my anxiety is so much in check that I don’t need much support from my husband. When he asks what he can do, I usually just want a hug. When my anxiety was unmanaged and days (and nights) were very difficult, physical touch was critical for me. This doesn’t have to be limited to your romantic partner. My best friend used to get some lotion and give me a hand massage while we talked about what was bothering me. We called them “hand jobs” because we were (and still are) super mature like that. My brother used to practice the relaxation massage techniques he was learning at university (he’s a physiotherapist AND adult onesie reviewer now) on my tense shoulders.
Know the plan, know the goals
Both from self-help books and therapy, I have learned strategies for managing my anxiety. Not all of them work, and the ones that do took practice. When feeling overwhelmed by anxiety, my tires are spinning in the mud and I just keep gunning it. It helps to have a friend to tell me to ease up on the gas and get me unstuck. Whether it’s taking a certain amount of deep breaths, labelling anxious thoughts, doing yoga or counting, if you know what strategy your loved one is practicing to manage their anxiety, do it with them or remind them to do it for themselves. For me, Exposure Response Prevention was the most effective method of treatment. I had to do the exact opposite of what I wanted to do. This meant that I had to practice sticking with whatever was making me anxious rather than running away from it. In fact, I had to try to amplify it if at all possible. (I talk about this more in-depth in my “It’s Not Fight or Flight” blog post.) I needed my husband’s support in a big way!
Some therapies require an anxious person to write down and rank their anxious thoughts, which helps them identify their triggers and to realize what kind of thinking traps they get themselves into. If your friend or loved one is keeping this kind of record, help them fill it out. It will help them to be able to say their thoughts out loud, without fear of judgment. Don’t belittle or minimize the anxious thoughts; don’t even try to resolve them. Just listen.
Engage and distract
When my anxiety is really overwhelming me, my truest desire is to crawl under a blanket and go to sleep. However, unless I medicate myself (I used to take tranquilizers), there’s no way I can fall asleep. What I wind up doing is hiding under my blanket feeling worse and worse and worse because my thoughts are spiraling out of control. Nowadays, I am an expert at recognizing when I’m doing this and adopting one of my coping strategies (all of which involve doing exactly the opposite of what my anxiety is telling me to do). I used to need (although not always appreciate) help in getting myself unstuck. If I can engage my brain and body with something challenging (without being overwhelming), it’s a good way to start feeling even a tiny bit better. An appropriate distraction will be different for everyone, but for me it would be things like working a crossword puzzle (my Dad and I got identical crossword puzzle books, and we’d get on Skype and work through a puzzle together), going on a walk or picking up my knitting. Stuck in my anxious brain, I need that friend who’s like a workout buddy who will never take “I’m too tired today” as an excuse for not going to the gym. Yes, listen to me when I talk about how I’m feeling and hug me when I cry, but then I need you to essentially force me to move on to something else. The more it engages my brain, the better. One of the most helpful people in my life when I’m having an anxiety attack is my husband. This is mainly because he doesn’t let me wallow and he also doesn’t judge me. (Which is funny, since he’s actually one of the most judgmental people I know.) He helps me to remember my breathing, to focus on the present moment and to not be so hard on myself. Then, instead of letting me avoid whatever activity is at hand because of my anxiety, he helps me do it in spite of my anxiety.
Help with decisions
When my anxiety is high, I seem to lose my ability to make simple decisions. Grocery shopping becomes a nightmare. Choosing a movie to watch or a radio station to listen to is suddenly painful. Deciding whether to put in a load of laundry or take a shower first feels like a monumental dilemma. Deciding what to eat is impossible because I have zero appetite. I don’t want to be treated like an invalid incapable of completing minor tasks, but anxiety makes minor tasks feel absolutely overwhelming. When my anxiety is high, sometimes I just need someone to give me a game plan.
Don’t give up on me and don’t let me give up
“Why am I still feeling this way?” was a question I would frequently pose between sobs after months of exhausting and discouraging daily anxiety. I don’t think I ever needed an answer, I just needed my parents or my husband to let me know that they were still there with me and that we shouldn’t give up. Medication and therapy take time to work. Sometimes they don’t work and something new has to be tried. My husband would frequently remind me that we were taking things one day at a time. Let the person you love know that you are there for them unconditionally, but also make sure that you care for yourself and that you understand your role. It’s not your responsibility to fix me, and I don’t expect you to. Just don’t give up on me!
Keep me company
I love me some alone time. Especially nowadays with two kids, a day alone sounds like a VACATION. However, anxious Lindsay cannot STAND to be alone. I remember I even hated skiing because heading down the slopes left me alone in my head to ruminate and worry. Invite me to run errands with you, invite me to clean your house with you. Come with me to my psychiatrist’s appointment so I don’t have to sit in the waiting room alone. If my husband was working nights or weekends, sometimes I’d go into the lab with him just to avoid being alone. I still remember this one rough patch in university when my dad took me as his “date” to a staff function ostensibly so I could be his designated driver. Sometimes my husband would walk me to the subway station on my way to work and then go back home. My worst times with anxiety all came before having children, so admittedly these suggestions presume children are not in the picture. The few times I have experienced anxiety since having kids, I definitely still felt the need for (grown up) company.
I wish my mom had used the word “vagina” with me when I was a kid so that I wouldn’t still cringe a little bit using it as an adult. I wish that “anxiety” and “depression” and “mental health” were words that I’d heard in high school. One amazing way to help a loved one with anxiety is to name it. Normalize it. Talk about it. My husband was the first one to normalize anxiety for me. Much to my horror, he would flat out tell his family that I was having a rough time with my anxiety. Much to my surprise, they didn’t flinch. Thinking that my experience was taboo and a secret to be kept made it a million times worse. I know now that there’s not a person in my life who doesn’t know someone else who has wrestled with mental illness . . . and many have surprised me by sharing their own struggles.
If you’re not sure what you can do to help, don’t be afraid to ask.
Resources that have helped me:
“The Secret History of Thoughts” episode of the podcast Invisibilia does a great job of explaining what it’s like to suffer from instrusive, obsessive thoughts.
Some books that helped me: [affiliate links to Amazon.ca]
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Second Edition: The Process and Practice of Mindful Change
Freedom from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (Updated Edition)
Full Catastrophe Living (Revised Edition): Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness
If you struggle with anxiety, what kind of support do you find most helpful?