It is easy to see the buzz expressions “mental health” and “ways to cope with stress/anxiety” appear regularly on social media, but it’s even harder to directly interact with someone who struggles from anxiety.
Not only is it often misunderstood, but it is also underestimated. The truth is that understanding the role and impact of anxiety can change lives. One simple act of empathy or understanding can avoid a ripple effect of bigger crises; helping those struggling with anxiety to gain confidence and handle life in a better way.
It’s more than just about ‘worrying’ or not being able to fall asleep at night. It’s way bigger than that, which is why it is important to provide the context behind words such as ‘stress’ and ‘anxiety’.
First, stress does not equal anxiety
While videos on social media may give the impression that stress is like having anxiety, people experiencing real anxiety go through completely different struggles. According to research, stress on its own is usually caused by an external trigger, which means that it can be short-term or only lasts until the external event comes to an end (a work deadline, discrimination, or an emotional breakup).
But anxiety isn’t just caused by an external event, it is more about persistent and excessive stress that never disappears even if there are no external stressors. While both have similar symptoms, such as insomnia, lack of concentration, fatigue, and irritability, anxiety can go on for months or years, which not only highly negatively affects mood, but also affects the daily life of the person and prevents them from carrying out their usual tasks.
How can you help someone who has anxiety?
The worst thing about an anxiety disorder is that it can be difficult to know if someone is experiencing anxiety or stress, as it does not always have obvious physical symptoms. This can be challenging for friends, partners and family members who sense that a loved one is afflicted by stress, but are unsure of how to help.
According to Joseph McGuire, a pediatric psychologist with Johns Hopkins Medicine, an anxiety disorder is often dismissed because people cannot always visually see it, so it’s harder to express empathy for the person dealing with it.
When someone is going through excessive worry, panic attacks or phobias from certain social events, the best way to express understanding for their struggles is to provide validation and show empathy and care.
“People do not get it because people are often self-oriented and selfish, and only care about their own mental conditions,” Muhammed Sherif, 28, tells Egyptian Streets about his struggles with an anxiety disorder. “I cannot share what I feel to people because they will often not express care or concern, and so I struggle in expressing myself because I cannot find the right medium or social space to talk in. It is also hard to fit in with society groups, which has increased my depression.”
Expressing concern or empathy for someone with an anxiety disorder has to be explicit; it doesn’t need to be covered up or not shown. By explicitly asking the person to share their worries and the issues they are dealing with, it can be helpful to allow them to feel that there is a person they can express their feelings and emotions to, and that they do not need to deal with them solely on their own.
It is by actively reaching out and listening to them that they are given more confidence in feeling that their emotions are validated and are heard.
Match your expression of concern into actions
There are different response actions for different anxiety disorders, but usually it is best to ask a professional on what is specifically needed to treat someone with an anxiety disorder.
According to research, there are two main ways to help someone with an anxiety disorder: the first is by guiding the anxious person to break down their worries into smaller ones and taking smaller steps to progress to deal with a difficult situation. The second is to explicitly say supportive statements, such as that they’re part of a team and collectively there will be support to get through it together.
What will also be extremely helpful is to educate yourself about cognitive-behavioral therapy, such as watching the ‘Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)’ sessions on YouTube and reading more about CBT online.
“People underestimate the basics of CBT or breathing techniques. They usually mock it and say ‘how would breathing help my anxiety?’ but there is a technique called PMR (progressive muscle relaxation), which helps reduce the tension in your muscles,” Myar Khaled, a psychology teaching assistant at the British University in Egypt, says.
“For example, I had a student that had a panic attack during an exam. What we did is that we did the PMR technique with her, and when she did it, she was able to control her breathing and muscles at the same time, and she was much calmer after it. This is why it is important, and a lot of people underestimate the value of breathing and muscle relaxation techniques.”
There are many different types of CBT. To dig deeper, there are techniques and worksheets that can be found here