Over the past few years, more and more attention has been given towards mental health of Canadians.
Like a physical illness, you can best help someone with anxiety by first understanding the illness.
Anxiety has been found to be the most common mental health problem in Canada (alongside mood disorders), with the Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada reporting that one in four Canadians – a whopping 25 per cent – will have at least one anxiety disorder in their lifetime.
If you are living with someone with anxiety, there are a number of different strategies you may have already tried to deal with it. It may be that you have told them to just stop worrying and/or that their worrying is ridiculous.
Or perhaps you have tried to support the person by taking on the activity that the person has been avoiding. For example, if the person is anxious about driving or going to the grocery store, you may have taken on the responsibility for driving or grocery shopping.
Can you find yourself using any of these strategies as a caregiver?
While well intentioned, the problem with these types of coping strategies is that they don’t work to assist the person in reducing or even managing their anxiety, and they can minimize the experience of living with an anxiety disorder. If the person could ‘just stop worrying’, believe me, they would have already done so.
Making accommodations can actually increase the person’s anxiety by inadvertently giving the message that there really is something to fear. If you are trying to rescue the person by feeding the avoidance, there is no incentive to overcome the anxiety. And, equally important, making these accommodations may be increasing your exclusive responsibilities and workload as a caregiver.
How to help someone with anxiety
Like a physical illness, you can best help someone with anxiety by first understanding the illness. Once the condition of anxiety is understood, you will be better able to assist them when you see them struggling with their anxiety. And helping them helps you!
First of all, it is important to understand that anxiety disorders are not the same as the nervousness you may feel before an important meeting, or the worry that may arise right before checking your bank account balance or before your kids arrive home from a party.
When someone has an anxiety disorder - whether diagnosed or not - they are living with symptoms on a regular basis and these symptoms are severe and interfere with all facets of life - home life, work life, play, and relationships. Excessive, uncontrollable anxiety is quite different from the anxiety that we all experience as part of everyday life.
Types of anxiety disorders
There are a number of different types of anxiety disorders - eight, actually - and all types can affect thinking, feeling, behavior and how one relates to others. Here are some examples of what it is like to live with anxiety and how a person with an anxiety disorder can be affected:
- Thinking – Negative thoughts about being hurt, something bad is going to happen, or being judged; poor concentration
- Feeling – Excessively worried; afraid; irritability; anger; guilt
- Behaviour – Often there is avoidance of people, or situations and objects
- Relating to others – Very nervous meeting new people; worry about saying the wrong thing; oversensitive about criticism from others; withdrawal
- Physical – Can be sweating, nausea, racing heart, fatigue, insomnia, muscle tension; easily startled
Whether the person you are caring for has been diagnosed or not, anxiety can wreak havoc on relationships and everyone’s quality of life. In fact, in order to be considered a ‘disorder’ there has to be distress or impairment in the person’s life as a result of the anxiety.
Treatments for anxiety
The good news is that there are effective treatments for anxiety ranging from medications to cognitive strategies (cognitive behavioural therapy), exposure (to the feared situations and sensations), and relaxation strategies (acceptance and mindfulness-based strategies).
It is best to consult with a health care professional for a full anxiety assessment and treatment plan. You can start with your family doctor.
As the caregiver, there are some things you can do now to help someone with anxiety, whether the person is seeking professional help or not:
- Listen without judgement to their experiences. Don’t minimize or dismiss their experience, as this will create more distance between you both.
- Suggest a consult with a professional. Begging, pleading, or threatening generally doesn’t work – you may have already noticed this!
- Encourage the person to try and get enough sleep, exercise, and to eat healthy food.
- Discourage the use of alcohol or drugs as a way to manage the anxiety symptoms.
- Provide support and encouragement – not pressure – to stay connected with friends and family members.
- Talk openly about what is happening. Feeling ashamed is often what prevents people from seeking help and support.
- Learn relaxation techniques together – See our Elizz articles on Deep Breathing Exercises For Caregivers and Progressive Muscle Relaxation Exercise.
- Take care of yourself by setting boundaries (no rescuing, taking on responsibility for someone else’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior).
We can all play a role in removing the stigma of mental health struggles. As a caregiver, you are well placed to do so by approaching the person you are caring for (who may have an anxiety disorder) with openness, compassion, and information. All of this can foster hope and the knowledge that life can feel better than it currently does – for both of you.
Powered by Saint Elizabeth Health Care and as a Canadian not-for-profit organization, Elizz is here to offer family caregivers a full range of care support services, as well provide support for those in your care. In Canada, Elizz is the place for all things caregiving.
If you have any questions or concerns about how to help someone in your care with an anxiety disorder, please contact an Elizz caregiver coach or call us at 1-855-Ask-Eliz (275-3549).