Dr. Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist in the Work, Stress and Health Program and Psychological Trauma Program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, identifies anxiety disorders as the most common mental health problem. Anxiety disorders can range from social anxiety to obsessive compulsive disorder, and its many other incarnations.
"A person suffering from an anxiety disorder has the tendency to overestimate the threat, danger or risk involved in situations," says Kamkar. "The distress caused by an anxiety disorder really does interfere with functioning in day-to-day activities." We asked her for advice on how to interact with a loved one who suffers from this mental illness, as well as ways to stay strong when it affects your relationship.
1. Don't pass judgment
If you haven't suffered from any anxiety disorders, it's hard to comprehend what they are exactly. But simply because you can't relate, it doesn't mean that you should underestimate the severity of them.
"An anxiety disorder is an illness. It is a disorder that causes a significant amount of distress and a significant amount of impairment," Kamkar stresses. You should be open to how much anxiety can impair your loved one's day-to-day functioning. "Reduce the tendency to be judgmental and critical," Kamkar says. It is important to not dismiss their actions as "dramatic."
2. Be supportive
Many people who suffer from an anxiety disorder suffer in silence. Kamkar admits that there's a stigma around mental health, which is why it's so important to be supportive and to encourage your loved one to open up.
"Talking about it with your partner, and asking them what you can do to help them when they feel an anxiety attack coming on, can really help them feel supported," says Kamkar. Listening to your loved one and being there for them will demonstrate that you are not intimidated by their problem.
Page 1 of 2 -- Reaching out to a loved one can start with reading more about anxiety disorders. Find more advice on helping those with anxiety on page 2
3. Don't take it personally
If you feel frustrated with your loved one at times when they are suffering through an anxiety attack, try your hardest to remain composed and supportive -- even if they don't seem grateful for your support. The worst thing you could do is to take their anxiety personally. It isn't about you, but about them. Be attentive to your loved one's needs and don't walk away or give up on them out of frustration. We all know relationships take work and this situation calls for a lot of patience on your part.
4. Gather knowledge
To truly understand what's going on (beyond what your loved one shares with you) it is important to read up on their specific disorder. "Gathering as much knowledge as possible can be very helpful," says Kamkar. "We have the luxury of Internet, which makes it much faster to gain access to resources and support groups."
You can also share your research with your loved one, which will help show them that you care and are sincere about helping out. Just knowing that you're there to stay will comfort the person suffering.
5. Offer to take them to their appointments
If you offer to attend medical appointments with your loved one, it is more likely that they will seek the professional help they require to get them on the path of health and recovery.
By taking the time to take them to an appointment, they will see that you don't think their issues are dramatic, but rather a legitimate illness that needs treatment. Kamkar also suggests joining them at the appointment and asking the clinician questions and tips on how you can deal with the specific problem together.
We've all been there -- even if you don't suffer from an anxiety disorder. "Anxiety is a very natural emotion, we all go through it," Kamkar says. "It just varies in frequency and severity." She compares it to an alarm system in our brain that is there to protect us. "Anxiety is something we can all relate to. We all have work pressure, exams and upcoming deadlines. In the case of anxiety disorder, it is very hard to relax," Kamkar says. So think about the last time you felt anxious, and imagine that amplified. This will help you be more empathetic.
With this knowledge and these tips, you can help lend some much-needed support to your loved one suffering from an anxiety disorder. Remember that it isn't about you, and encourage them to get professional help, either drug therapy or cognitive behavioural therapy (or a combination of the two).
Have you ever had to deal with a loved one's anxiety? How do you handle it?
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