Like most mental illnesses, anxiety gets misunderstood quite a lot of the time. People who have it often get a lot of stick from people who don’t have it, and hear things like “Why can’t you just pull yourself together?”, “Why are you overreacting?”, and “Calm down”, quite a lot.
For the people who say things like this, anxiety probably looks like someone being a bit pathetic, getting worked up about something stupid, crying about doing something that everyone else on the planet has no problem doing. And while, yes, everyone feels anxious from time to time, there’s a big difference between being a bit nervous, and being in a state of anxiety so severe that it affects your day-to-day life.
Handling anxiety and panic attacks is difficult when you’re the one dealing with them, to say the least, but it’s no walk in the park to be friends with someone suffering either. It’s not easy to know what to say without making things worse, or how to help someone through a panic attack. I’ve suffered from anxiety and panic attacks, and I’ve also watched friends deal with anxiety and panic attacks, so I’ve got a pretty solid idea of what the do’s and don’t’s are in situations like this. If you find that someone you’re close to is suffering from a panic disorder, here are just a few things you can do to help.
1. Be willing to just listen
I can’t overstate how important it is to be prepared to listen. You don’t need to have the answers to their problems, and you don’t even need to say anything back; you just need to be prepared to sit quietly and let your friend talk about how they feel and everything that’s making them feel bad, if that’s what they want. Voicing their worries and concerns might be all it takes for them to realise that they have nothing to worry about.
Equally, ask them what you can do to help and listen to what they have to say. If they don’t want to talk, respect that. If they want to be left alone, respect that. If they just need a really big hug from you, respect the hell out of that.
2. Don’t be judgemental
Panic attacks can occur at any point, and sometimes they’re triggered by the stupidest and smallest of things: by making a phone call, or going food shopping, or by the milk in the fridge going off, or forgetting the Netflix password. And sometimes, panic attacks appear for seemingly no reason whatsoever. Because they’re crap like that
If your friend is spiralling in reaction to something that seems a bit ridiculous, it can be difficult to support and help them without feeling annoyed. It might seem like a massive overreaction to you to have a panic attack in the middle of ASDA because there are too many people down the pasta aisle, but know that this fear that your friend is feeling is very much real, and you telling them that it’s silly to get so upset over something so menial isn’t going to help. Instead, remind them that they’re safe and that they aren’t alone, and ask them what you can do to help.
3. Help them to get out of stressful situations
If you’re out with your friend and you know that panic is starting to set in for them, help them to get somewhere calmer and safer if you can, or distract them from the stressful situation in any way you can. Maybe show them some stupid memes on your phone, or start talking about something that you know they like and makes them feel comfortable. And, above all, make sure that your friend knows that they can tell you when things are getting overwhelming.
4. Be willing to let them know that you still like them
Nothing is better at making you doubt every single part of your life like anxiety, and relationships are a key aspect of this. It’s like having a tiny gremlin living inside your head, telling you that the fact that your friend didn’t put an emoji in the text they just sent you means they hate you and want you out of their life forever. It’s almost always totally unfounded and based on evidence that is shaky at best, but anxiety can be super convincing and can easily send you hurtling down a slippery slope of doubt.
Sometimes, your friend just needs to be reassured that you don’t hate them. It seems a bit stupid, but it’ll help. A lot.
5. Don’t let them isolate themselves
Anxiety is really inconvenient when it comes to maintaining friendships. Whether you feel entirely too inadequate for friendship, or that all your friends secretly hates you, or that all human beings are terrifying and you need to be alone at all times, it’s a real killer in terms of your social life. The simple act of sending a text and starting a conversation with a friend can be overwhelmingly difficult, as can arranging friend dates, agreeing to hang out, or even following through on pre-existing plans. So often, this translates as, “I don’t want to be friends with you anymore,” when what you really want to be saying is, “I value and appreciate you as a friend, but I’m too anxious to let you know this.” Anxiety makes it entirely too easy to push away every single person in your life and retreat into a ball.
Don’t let your friend do this. If you can see them isolating themselves – whether they’re cancelling plans, turning down your requests to hang out, not answering texts, or spending a lot of time alone – don’t take it personally, and don’t give up on your friendship. Keep reaching out, maybe suggest low-key hang outs, or things that you know they like to do, and make sure that they know that they aren’t alone.
6. Encourage them to get help
Unless you’re a qualified medical professional when it comes to mental health, there’s probably only so much help that you can give your friend with anxiety. If you feel like things are getting too serious, or dangerous, or you’re just not sure what to do, suggesting that your friend goes to seek some professional advice is definitely a good option. They can visit their GP, or contact the student support services that we have on campus, and also ask them if they’d like you to help them to book an appointment, or if they want you to come along to the appointment with them.
7. Look after yourself
People who are suffering with anxiety need good friends around them, but it’s important to remember that you don’t owe them free, round-the-clock therapy or emotional support. If you feel like looking out for your friend is having a negative impact on your life, your wellbeing and your own mental health, you need to put yourself first. If it’s midnight and your friend is having an anxious episode, for example, and you’ve got an important test at 9am in the morning, it’s ok to go to sleep. You can’t help anyone if you don’t look after yourself, so make sure that you’re looking out for you.