There’s plenty of awareness and help for those who are suffering with anxiety, which is so great to see – but what about those people who aren’t suffering, but are living with someone who does? 

Whether you’re the parent of a suffering child, or a sibling, partner, or house mate, this applies to you. Living with someone who has anxiety, specifically severe anxiety or a related disorder, is already tough – let alone in such a situation when stress is heightened. It’s a whole other type of stress in itself. So I thought I’d write a few (lol) words to help out. 🙂

I’m sure it’s very hard to understand or get on their level, and chances are you never will. It’s most likely that they don’t even understand themselves. But there are ways that you can help, and there are definitely things you should avoid doing.

Now I’m no professional, but I’ve lived with severe anxiety for most of my life and I know what’s worked and what hasn’t, both on myself and on family members and friends who suffer in similar ways. So what I’m about to say is likely to have more value to it than someone who doesn’t know what it’s like to be on the other side.

I’ve put together a few Dos and Don’ts to give you a clearer picture. It’s a bit wordy but I promise it’s worth the read. Here’s my two cents:

People suffering with their mental health need to know that their loved ones want to help them, not change them.

Things You Should Do:

  • Speak to the person who’s suffering
    Some people think that ignoring symptoms is the way to go, hoping that it will get better by doing so. Chances are… It won’t. Speak to them, acknowledge the fact that they might be suffering, and let them know that you’re there to help. In the case of young children, please don’t assume that they’re too young to understand. You might be surprised at how aware of their thoughts and emotions they actually are, so encourage them to speak up and let them know they can be comfortable doing so, rather than feel ashamed.
  • Ask how you can help
    They might not have an answer to this, but simply asking (not persistently) will show them that you really do care. Come up with some ideas together, and see what works and what doesn’t. And whatever you do, keep trying and don’t give up.
  • Distract them
    If one of the person’s symptoms is a tic, whether vocal (like clearing throat repeatedly) or motor (blinking repetitively or spasm-like movements), or they are peeling / scratching their skin or pulling out hair (like I do), rather than tell them off, simply try to distract them. Strike up a conversation with them, give them something to hold or to do, play a game – anything that might help to get their mind off it. And as much as possible, do this with enthusiasm and not frustration.
  • Encourage them to do something they enjoy
    Being stuck at home and feeling anxious can make it harder for some people to do things they really love, but if you push and encourage them (in a positive and gentle way), they’ll probably be happy that you did in the long run. Feed off how they respond, and maybe try to work on a schedule together for them to prepare for the next time. Of course there are limitations during quarantine, so make sure that whatever it is, it’s something that can be practised safely under these circumstances.
  • Focus on the positive
    People who suffer with their mental health tend to feel insignificant and worthless and can be very vulnerable and sensitive. Praise their progress, recognise the way they handle things, and remind them that they’re doing a great job – and that you love them and are proud of them. Such comments are worth more than you can ever imagine.
  • Seek the help of a professional
    Anxiety is more than simply feeling nervous every now and then – a lot of people find this very hard to understand. There is a wide variety of disorders that are linked to anxiety and these could worsen over time and significantly affect the person’s life and relationships. Speak to a professional and consider therapy; the sooner they start, the better it will be for everyone.

Now that we’ve established some things that you can do, let’s talk about the things that you should definitely avoid…

Mental health issues can show up in many different ways, and that doesn’t make one more serious than another.

Things You Should Absolutely NOT Do:

  • Make them feel bad
    Imagine punishing an amputee for not having a limb. You wouldn’t do that, so why punish someone for their brain being wired differently? It’s not their fault, so making them feel bad will make them feel like a failure and a disappointment for the rest of their life. And trust me, that’s very hard to shake off.
  • Assume it will go away
    Some tics and issues can be grown out of, or might just be a phase, but you can’t assume that this is the case because you’ll never really know the severity of it from the get-go. Don’t ignore it and act like they’re fine – speak to them and work on it together.
  • Get angry or punish them
    Much like the first point, punishing someone for something that isn’t their fault is cruel and highly damaging. I know that it can be frustrating, especially if their symptoms are driving you crazy, but imagine how it feels for them to not be able to control what they are doing. It’s not because they’re lazy or being annoying – there’s a difference between someone being a pest and someone suffering with severe anxiety. If you are having a hard time dealing with them, consider therapy for yourself also. Everyone can benefit this way. 🙂
  • Act like you understand exactly what they’re going through
    As much as you might think that this is comforting, it’s actually anything but. Imagine you’ve had every bone in your body broken, and someone with a broken baby toe tells you they know exactly how you feel. You want to send them flying right? This is the same thing. Empathise, yes, and let them know that you’re there for them in any way you can be. But don’t tell them you understand what they’re going through, because chances are, you don’t.
  • Make their troubles seem insignificant
    You can have someone living a perfectly decent life with a healthy family, great relationship, stable job, and they can still suffer with horrible anxiety. Mental health issues do not equate to life situations. Telling someone there are many people who are worse off than them so they should be grateful and “just calm down” is probably one of the most damaging mentalities ever so please for God’s sake don’t ever make them feel unworthy of their own emotions. And speaking of which…
  • Tell them to calm down
    If they are having a panic attack, which could be anything from crying to hyperventilating or even fainting, DO NOT under any circumstance tell them to calm down, get a grip, just breathe, stop being silly, or anything of the sort. Sit with them. Breathe with them slowly. Hug them. Monitor their temperature – if they’re cold, give them a blanket, if they’re burning up, get them some water and maybe a damp cloth. And just be present until they’ve calmed down.

People who suffer with their mental health need to know that their loved ones want to help them, but not change them. 

Here’s a gentle reminder that mental health issues can show up in many different ways, and that doesn’t make one more serious than another. Even if someone seems to have pent up frustration or anger, or has unexplained mood swings or outbursts, this could very well be anxiety related. A person doesn’t need to be “crazy” to be suffering, and it’s so important to keep that in mind.

If you think you or someone you live with might be suffering in any way, especially during this pandemic, please call the National Mental Health Helpline on 1770 (in Malta) – they have a number of professionals working round the clock to be able to provide support for free.

Also feel free to get in touch with me should you just like to have a chat. You can contact me here or via my Facebook page or Instagram.

If you found this article helpful, please share it with your family and friends! It could potentially save a life. 🙂

Wishing you all strength and courage at this time. Meanwhile I’d like to personally thank all the people who have really stepped up to the plate to help our country deal with this pandemic in such a professional, smooth, and successful way!

Lots of love,

Special thanks to my wonderful friend Neil Grech for the beautiful photos!

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