Feeling nervous or getting stressed is a normal part of life; everyone experiences these emotions. But if they get to an extreme point, where they significantly interfere with someone’s quality of life, that person may receive an anxiety disorder diagnosis from a mental health professional.
Helping someone with anxiety can be a challenging situation. But with the right information in hand, you can have a positive impact in their life.
Know the Diagnosis
To help your loved one with anxiety, it’s necessary to first understand there are different types of anxiety disorders. Each has its own unique set of triggers and symptoms. Some examples include:
- Generalized anxiety disorder is known for excessive worry and tension.
- Panic disorder is known for frequent panic attacks, which have different triggers, intensity, and duration than anxiety attacks.
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) occurs when a traumatic event creates intense anxiety symptoms and patterns of avoidance.
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is known for obsessive thoughts followed by compulsive behaviors, such as hand-washing or counting.
- Social anxiety disorder is when anxiety occurs in different types of social situations.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has a great online resource with more information on each of these anxiety disorders. Check it out here.
Understand Anxiety Statistics and Severity
Anxiety disorders are the most common of all mental illnesses, affecting 40 million Americans every year. Approximately 30% of adults will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. That means your loved one with anxiety probably isn’t the only person you know who deals with it!
Anxiety disorders can have a wide range of severity. Twenty-three percent of people who have anxiety disorders fall into the “severe” classification. The rest are considered “mild” to “moderate.” This does not diminish the impact anxiety issues can have on a person’s life. It can help put things in perspective for you, especially if you’re overwhelmed or intimidated by the your loved one’s mental health diagnosis. It’s not potentially lethal, like an eating disorder, and it’s not a chronic condition that requires a lifetime of medication management, like bipolar disorder.
If you notice your friend with anxiety is struggling, recommend that they seek help from mental health professionals.
If they are resistant to the idea, let them know how common anxiety disorders truly are. Showing them some of the statistics above can normalize what they’re dealing with, so it’s easier for them to realize how much treatment can help.
Treating anxiety disorders typically involves talk therapy, medication, transcranial magnetic stimulation, or a combination of these. If your loved one has yet to get help for their anxiety disorder, these treatments could seem intimidating. They may be resistant. Providing more information on how these treatments work could encourage your loved one to take the essential steps to get better.
When most people think of different types of therapy, they envision a patient lying on a couch, talking about their childhood for years on end. While this can be helpful, evidence has shown that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is particularly effective for anxiety disorders. CBT doesn’t take long, and it teaches people practical coping strategies that can drastically improve their quality of life. It’s more effective and lasts longer than medication for social anxiety and panic disorder. A form of CBT called exposure and response therapy is considered a great way to treat OCD, in particular.
The most commonly prescribed medications for anxiety disorders are antidepressants. Even though antidepressants are used to treat and manage depression, they are very helpful for anxiety disorders as well. These conditions often go hand-in-hand, so using one medication to treat both can be extremely beneficial.
SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are the most commonly used antidepressants for anxiety disorders. They work by increasing the amount of serotonin in the brain, which produces a calming effect and improves mood. SNRIs (serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors) work in a similar way, increasing the amount of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain.
Antidepressants can take four to six weeks to work. Your loved one’s doctor will choose the one best suited to treat their symptoms and work with them to manage dosage.
Benzodiazepines, such as alprazolam (Xanax®) and diazepam (Valium®), can also be used to treat anxiety disorders. These medications have the benefit of working quickly to relieve the anxiety symptoms, but using them frequently can lead to tolerance and dependence. Doctors generally advise reserving their use for particularly bad anxiety attacks.
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS)
Antidepressants can get a bad rap because of their side effects, but they do help lots of people. If your loved one is concerned about antidepressant side effects, they may want to consider transcranial magnetic stimulation as an alternative. It’s a non-invasive treatment that works by regulating the amygdala, a part of the brain that’s hyperactive in people who have anxiety. TMS is highly effective, and it has none of the side effects associated with antidepressant medications.
If you’d like to recommend TMS for your loved one’s anxiety, HPR Treatment Centers is a national provider with locations across the country. You can learn more at hprtc.com. TMS is an off-label treatment for anxiety and may not be covered by insurance, but it could be a particularly good option if your loved one has already been in treatment and hasn’t improved as much as they’d like.
Set Boundaries, If Needed
People with anxiety disorders can struggle to maintain positive relationships, and this could affect you. Alice Boyes, Ph.D. is a CBT therapist who has this recommendation:
“Sometimes anxious people rely heavily on their romantic partner, parent, or sibling to run interference for them. It’s common for anxious people to avoid asking for help in general, but have a few people they excessively ask for reassurance, help with decision making, or assistance in a particular area in which they feel unconfident.”
If you are within this inner circle, it’s a positive thing to be available to help. But it’s not your job to “fix” their anxiety disorder. Nor are you capable of it! That should not be your loved one’s expectation either, so be sure to communicate what you feel comfortable being available for. As Dr. Boyes points out, your loved one should not use you as a “crutch” to avoid anxious situations or thought patterns. Set a boundary that lets you be present as a friend or family member, but be clear that the work of conquering and managing the anxiety disorder cannot go through you. This should become easier once your loved one is in treatment.
Look Forward to Better Times
Friendship and family relationships are a two-way street, but it’s important to understand how best to support the people you love. Your loved one’s anxiety may never go away 100%, but it can improve to the point where your relationship becomes more balanced and more like it used to be.