If you have loved someone with anxiety, whether it is your partner or your child, you would most probably agree that it is not easy. Supportive as you may be, feelings of exhaustion, helplessness and frustrations in the face of chronic or debilitating anxiety of your loved one are often inevitable.
When we witness someone we love in pain, tortured by relentless anxiety, we would often try everything we can think of to relieve their anxieties. Unfortunately, even though such efforts might offer some short-term relief, they tend to exacerbate anxiety in the long run.
3 of the most common things that people do to alleviate the anxiety of a loved one are:
Offering frequent reassurance
e.g., “You’ll be fine!”, “It won’t happen”, “Everyone loves you!”
Avoidance and accommodations
e.g., “Why don’t we just stay home” (to avoid anxieties around getting out of the house or being in a particular situation).
e.g., Driving long distances whereby flying would have been more convenient (to avoid anxieties around flying).
Verbal agreement (even if it contradicts your belief)
e.g., “You may be right that you might embarrass yourself during the presentation”.
Why are they counterproductive?
While done with the best of intentions, these methods are essentially sending the anxious person the message that the danger in their feared situations are genuine and that they can manage neither these situations, nor their fears. It hinders them from learning that they are capable of facing and overcoming their fears.
Eventually, our loved ones would need more and more frequent reassurance and accommodations in order to feel less anxious, thereby further escalating their anxiety. Their reliance developed over time from the expectation that we would simply step in and make it all better might also decrease their motivation to seek psychological therapy to address their anxiety.
Nonetheless, not doing the above does not mean we should invalidate the anxieties of our loved ones. Those anxious thoughts and feelings are very real for them. So, what are some of the things that we can do to help?
Empathic, active listening
Show your loved one that you are willing to put yourself in their shoes and understand their perspectives, even if you do not agree.
Example of an anxious statement: “I’d totally fail that test tomorrow and all that work would be for nothing”.
Example of an empathic response: I" can hear that you are really concerned about doing a good job. That mustn’t be easy. Can you tell me what makes you worried about tomorrow’s test?”
Practising abdominal breathing together
When we are anxious or under stress, we are more inclined to do shallower chest breathing, which can escalate symptoms of anxiety or induce hyperventilation. Nonetheless, when we breathe deep into the abdomen, the oxygen level in the brain and muscles is increased, activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us relax.
Practising progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) together
People who are prone to feeling anxious tend to have low awareness when their muscles are tensing up, often because they are too focused on their worrying thoughts or because they have become so accustomed to certain degrees of muscle tension that they do not realise it, until their muscles start aching.
PMR involves systematically tightening and relaxing particular major muscle groups throughout the body, one at a time. Regular PMR practice can be helpful for alleviating muscle tension, which is often related to anxiety and stress, and inducing a more relaxed state.
If you or a loved one is struggling with anxiety and would like to learn more about management strategies, a psychologist may be able to help. You can book in for an initial consultation with me via https://www.jasmineloopsychology.com/contact-me