Updated: Oct 31, 2020
A Guide for Family and Friends of Someone with Generalized Anxiety Disorder
By Lily Patterson
Image via Unique Mindcare
What would I know?
As someone who struggles with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and anxiety attacks, I know that my mental health issues can sometimes become taxing on family and friends. It can be difficult for the people around to know how to react when I’m having an anxiety attack or just going through a prolonged episode of anxiety. So here are some of my guidelines for people who have someone with an anxiety disorder in their lives, and how they can react when a loved one is struggling.
What is GAD?
Starting with the basics, let’s take a look at what it means to have Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This will help you gain some insight about what your loved one may be going through on a daily basis. To put it simply, GAD produces excessive worrying that feels uncontrollable and can interfere with daily life. Triggers for this worrying can be found in different places depending on the person, and it's important to remember that everybody copes in their own ways. Of course, a certain level of anxiety is perfectly normal - and healthy.
To demonstrate the difference of normal anxiety compared to GAD, think about the voice in your head that tells you to be careful when you cross the street. It’s usually a soft reminder to look both ways before you cross and to make sure you’re aware of the signs around you directing traffic. Overall, that voice in your head is helpful. However, people with GAD usually have to wrestle with that soft voice becoming overbearing, filling them with uncontrollable worry and anxiety. Melinda Smith, M.A. and Jeanne Segal, PhD explain how those with GAD “...go about their activities filled with exaggerated worry and tension, even when there is little or nothing to provoke them,”.
Now that you know some preliminary information about GAD, let’s talk about what you can do when a loved one is overly anxious because of this disorder or even going through an anxiety attack.
1. Put their comfort first.
Your priority when trying to help a loved one with GAD should always be to make them feel comfortable. It’s understandable to feel awkward when the person you care for is disassociating or currently having an anxiety or panic attack, but it's important to remind yourself that they feel much more discomfort than you do.
'The best thing to do [...] is to be present and calm for the individual' - Dawn Wever M.A., LMHC
Ask them what they feel would be helpful and let them choose coping skills they would like to utilize. This allows them to be in control of themselves and gives them the opportunity to problem-solve and recognize what works for them and what does not work for them.
If you're unsure of what to do, discreetly ask if you can help. If the answer is no, continue as normal and check in later to see if they’re feeling more like themselves. To put it simply, just be there for them and prioritize their comfort.
2. Try to be proactive.
There are a few things you can proactively do to help your family or friend with GAD to feel less anxious in general. “When we are present for people and are nonjudgmental, we provide an opportunity for connection, which can be healing in itself,” says Dawn Wever, M.A., LMHC.
A common trigger for people with GAD is uncertainty about the future, and usually, we find having a plan and knowing what's next to be beneficial in preventing anxiety attacks. For instance, when you need to have a talk with a loved one who has GAD try briefly mentioning what the conversation will be about. This can help them feel more prepared for the discussion instead of obsessing over what it could possibly be about. Small, easy things like telling them the plan for the day, letting them know that you’ll be busy, or keeping them updated on events that are pending can better prepare your loved ones with GAD for what they may need to face.
If your family or friend with GAD is comfortable with you knowing about their mental health, try having a discussion about what coping mechanisms they prefer to use. Every person with GAD has a different recipe of what makes them feel more like themselves and by knowing some of their triggers and how they cope, you can begin to be more proactive about offering your help. Again, make sure that your loved one with GAD is comfortable with this discussion and assure them that there’s no pressure to reveal information that may make them upset.
3. Respect boundaries.
Mental health can be a very private matter so above all else, maintain your loved one’s boundaries. If you notice that they may be anxious but they express that they do not want you to know about what they’re currently struggling with, find another way to help. Drilling someone with questions while they are going through an attack or their GAD is elevating isn’t a great approach. You do not need to know someone’s trigger or trauma in order to help them.
4. Revisit the issue later.
If you notice that your loved one had been feeling anxious earlier but didn’t want to talk about it in the moment, you can always attempt to revisit the issue later. Take a moment to ask them afterwards if they’re still feeling out of sorts and see if there's anything you can do after the fact. Or, you can take the time to ask them what you can do to be a better source of support next time. “There is nothing wrong with expressing concern and letting them know you are available if they would like to talk or need help,” advises Dawn Wever, M.A., LMHC. I’ll say it again, be sure to respect boundaries and know when to let the issue rest.
5. Get out of an unhealthy situation or environment.
In some cases, an environment or certain situation can heighten anxiety or contribute to an anxiety attack. If you notice a loved one becoming visibly anxious, ask if they would like to take a break or step outside. Once more, if you reach out to help, their comfort becomes important, so if they need to take a break from a bustling party or are starting to become too overwhelmed by the environment of a certain classroom ask if they would like you to come with them or if they would prefer you to stay and cover for them. It all depends on the person, but GAD often feeds off of environments that become a cause for excessive anxiety. Overall, just be aware of your surroundings when you’re with a loved one that has GAD.
6. Don’t tell us to calm down.
One of the worst things you can do for someone with GAD is to invalidate the fear or worry that sparked the anxiety. If a loved one is particularly anxious about a certain thing or is anxious from an unknown trigger, try to avoid telling them to “calm down.” That’s not how GAD works. “Invalidation can lead to feelings of loneliness, hopelessness and helplessness,” says therapist Dawn Wever, M.A., LMHC. “Invalidation is akin to saying there is something inherently wrong with that person instead of seeing anxiety as a valid response at times to the environment and something that we can learn to manage well,” she continues.
Everyone deals with their anxiety in different ways, and each person has unique coping skills that help them regain control and feel more like themselves. Remember that sometimes your help may be rejected, and that’s perfectly fine. You are not in your loved one’s mind so be conscientious of boundaries they’ve set and be respectful of how they choose to deal with their anxiety. Lastly, keep in mind that you aren't going to be able to cure anyone’s anxiety and all you can do is try to ease the stress caused by Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Be kind and take care of your GAD friends and family in the best ways you can. As Dawn Wever, M.A., LMHC says “Never give up. Anxiety can be managed well and does not have to be debilitating.“
Written by writer Lily Patterson