This isn’t a choice.
When I had my first panic attack, I was convinced I was having a heart attack.
An ambulance ride and six hours in the Emergency Department later, I was informed the crushing sensation in my chest, racing heart, and shallow breathing which had woken me from my sleep, were in fact the result of an anxiety attack.
The good news is that, unlike heart attacks, there are no current cases of anxiety attacks alone killing anyone.
The bad news is, anxiety attacks feel – in every possible way – like you are in fact about to die.
You can struggle for air, feel incapacitated with an intense sense of terror, collapse, faint, or hyperventilate. It’s hard to reason with your misfiring brain at this point in time, that there’s nothing to worry about, when your sympathetic nervous system is going into overdrive.
Even still, to an outsider, it can look like someone with anxiety is simply being overly dramatic or emotional. I’ve been told on more than one occasion to simply “take a breather”, “calm down” or “stop overreacting”. If only it were that simple.
The truth is, the more I’m pressured to “snap out of it”, the worse, and subsequently more anxious, I typically feel. And I know I’m not alone. It’s estimated anxiety disorders affect around 40 million people in the United States alone. And anxiety remains one of the most widely misunderstood mental health conditions – depicted in pop culture as dramatized breathing into brown paper bags and crazed behavior, in reality it’s often impossible to pick the friend or coworker who suffers from it, unless they’ve directly told you, or you’ve witnessed a panic attack firsthand.
There’s more bad news, too. While there are some fairly effective ways to manage anxiety, involving both medication and lifestyle changes, there is no cure for it. So if you’re in a relationship with someone who has anxiety, it’s important you understand the following things…
1. We can’t control it.
Literally. We have no more say over when a panic attack sets in than you do over when you get struck with the flu.
2. Just because we’re smiling doesn’t mean we’re okay.
Mental illness still has a massive amount of stigma attached to it. Which means we’ll bend over backwards to hide our suffering wherever possible.
3. We need your support. More than you know.
Even if you don’t know what to say; just sitting with us while we ride out a panic attack really helps in reminding us we don’t have to suffer alone.
4. Please don’t ever tell us to “calm down” or “think positive”.
While it’s true altering your thought processes can help anxiety; in the midst of a severe bout of anxiousness, being told to “just calm down” only adds to our stress by adding pressure.
5. Don’t expect us to just bounce back.
Anxiety and panic attacks are absolutely draining on a physical, mental, and emotional level. We will need you to cut us some slack when we appear mega tired for a couple of days after a severe bout of anxiety.
6. No, we’re not angry or upset at you.
While intense emotions like anger and stress can set off anxiety, please know that you are not the reason for our panic attacks. Don’t take it personally. Instead, show your support by bringing any emotionally heightened conversation you may have been having with us down to a slow, calm, deliberate tone. (This really helps calm our over-fired-up nervous systems.)
7. It feels like hell.
The fear that pierces through a person’s heart during an anxiety attack has often been described as akin to the terror of staring down the barrel of a loaded gun, and can physiologically mimic a heart attack. Think labored breathing, racing heart, a crushing sensation in the chest and uncontrolable shaking.
8. You literally can not repeat the phrases “I’m here for you”, “You’re not a burden”, “I’m proud of you for fighting this” and “This will pass soon” enough to us during a panic attack.
You may feel completely powerless if you witness us having an attack, but simple words of support help more than you know. You honestly can not remind us enough times that you’re here for us when we’re in the midst of a panic attack. But if all else fails and you’re lost for words, just silently sitting with us is often enough.
9. Please don’t punish us for being this way.
If you broke your leg and couldn’t walk, would you expect to be made to feel bad for it, like you’d in some way failed as a human? Then please don’t make us feel like our anxiety is a choice, or we’re being annoying or dramatic when it all gets too much and we break down. It is terrifying. It hurts. We want it to stop just as much as you do.
10. Our anxiety makes us feel like burdens more often than not.
We worry constantly that we’re wasting your time, frustrating and stressing you, being needy or high maintenance, and potentially even pushing everyone we care about away. Anxiety doesn’t just impact a person’s physical and mental health, it impacts our relationships and careers.
11. When you support us through our anxiety, it means THE WORLD.
Having a relationship, be it a friendship or romantic relationship, with an anxiety sufferer isn’t exactly a walk in the park. It can be one of the most challenging relationships you ever have, but it can also be the most rewarding. Because when you’re still standing there for us once the storm has passed, with arms outstretched, it feels like the best feeling in the world to us, and we’ll let you know it.
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Comment: What are the most helpful things loved ones have done to support you through your anxiety?