Anxiety is contagious. Families and friends often suffer their own discomfort when they are forced to watch a loved one struggle with an anxiety disorder. Because they hate to witness the pain, they try to help. I know this because so many of my clients talk about the people in their lives who desperately want them to stop feeling anxious.
Unfortunately, attempts to help can paradoxically intensify the problem. Advice about anxiety offered up by friends and family is frequently – if you’ll pardon me for saying so – terrible, mainly because it can be so difficult to understand what prevents a person from simply calming down.
And so it is for anyone who struggles against anxiety that I have written the following letter to loved ones. If the people in your life don’t understand your anxiety and this message speaks to you, please use it as you see fit.
Dear [family, friend, or loved one],
You know that I have struggled with anxiety for some time now. You know this because you regularly see me [panic, scrub, hoard, pace, hide, ruminate, check, clean, etc]. I realize that anxiety takes my attention away from our relationship and that, sooner or later, behavior like mine is going to get under your skin. I also realize that you are concerned about me. No one wants to see a loved one struggle. I try to hide the struggle, but I know that you see it.
In an attempt to help me, you have frequently suggested that I [relax, calm down, stop worrying, take a deep breath, etc].
I say this with honest appreciation for your motives, dear [family, friend, or loved one]: Knock it off. Telling me to calm down isn’t helping. In fact, it makes things worse.
Let’s acknowledge the obvious: if I could stop my anxiety, I would have done so by now. That may be difficult to understand since it probably looks like I choose to [panic, scrub, hoard, pace, hide, ruminate, check, clean, etc]. I don’t. In my world, doing those things is only slightly less excruciating than not doing them. It’s a difficult thing to explain, but anxiety places a person in that position.
I know you wish me relief from the anxiety, so here’s what you can do instead: when I am in the midst of anxiety, imagine me in quicksand. The harder a person struggles against quicksand, the more stuck they become. Anxiety can be like that. Sometimes, the harder I try to escape anxiety, the worse it gets. Telling me to relax is like telling someone in quicksand to struggle harder. Despite the best intentions, it just doesn’t work.
My anxiety is embarrassing, and I hate that you have to deal with it. But I know that you want to help, so when you find me in the midst of it, tell me that you recognize my struggle even if you don’t quite understand it. Tell me that you know it will pass and that you will be there for me. Most of all, know that you don’t need to make my anxiety go away.
There is irony in this situation, dear [family, friend, or loved one]. My anxiety clearly brings you discomfort. I wish I could tell you to simply stop worrying about my anxiety. I wish it didn’t affect you. But I know that you can’t prevent your reaction any more than I can stop the anxiety.
It looks like we’ll both have to work on this. I promise to keep tackling the anxiety the best way that I know how. All I ask in return is for you to know that you don’t have to rescue me from this.
Your anxious loved one.
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Dr. Smith is a psychologist in Denver, Colorado and the author of The User's Guide to the Human Mind: Why Our Brains Make Us Unhappy, Anxious, and Neurotic and What We Can Do about It. You can read the introduction and find other goodies at guidetothemind.com.