What Friends Can Do

November 2, 2012 at 4:05 am

Before this year I was utterly ignorant when it came to anxiety. All I knew about anxiety was that my little brother had struggled with it for years and a woman I knew had become addicted to Xanax in her battle with the illness. Once I began my own journey with anxiety, more people came out of the woodwork, confiding in me their own struggles and triumphs with its horrors. I certainly don’t consider myself an expert after six months of experience, but I have learned a thing or two about what friends can do to help when someone they love is suffering with anxiety (and depression).

Not everyone will experience anxiety in the same way. What was helpful to me may not be helpful to everyone, but I encourage you to try these things anyway. Perhaps your efforts won’t help, but at least your friend will know that you care. And if you’re anything like my friends, you just may save her life.

Do call often. Sometimes talking to another person was the only thing that got me through the hours and hours of fear and darkness. I had friends and family members who called me every day (sometimes multiple times a day) for weeks. If you (or your friend) are not a phone person, send encouraging emails or frequent cards in the mail.

Don’t tell scary stories. Maybe you have an aunt or uncle or cousin or brother who was hospitalized with mental illness or committed suicide after their battle with depression or suffered from a horrific sleep disorder for years, but your friend with anxiety won’t feel better about her illness if you tell her those stories. They will frighten her and further convince her that the worst-case-scenarios that haunt her daily have, in fact, happened and could happen to her too. Instead of fueling her fear, fuel her faith.

Do sit with her. One of the most helpful things my friends did for me was to simply come to my house and spend a few hours with me. Sometimes I wasn’t much for conversation because my mind and body were too wound-up with panic, but just having a stable person present gave me some relief and helped me pass the time. When you’re fighting tooth and nail to get through each minute of the day, anything that makes the time go faster is a welcome reprieve. If you can get her out of the house and into some fresh air and sunshine, even better.

Don’t say, “I’m worried about you.” And don’t let your worry for her creep into your voice or your eyes. This will make her panic more. Keep your cool when you’re in her presence. It’s okay to worry, but don’t let her see, hear, or feel your fear, if you can help it. Helpful alternatives to “I’m worried about you” include:

    • “I’m praying for you.”
    • “I know you’re going to get through this.”
    • “I’m here for you.”
    • “You can call me anytime, day or night.”

A friend of mine told me the other day, “I was so worried about you that day…” This was totally fine. Once your anxious friend is feeling better, feel free to let her know just how worried you were. But not until then!

Do give her something to look forward to. I had friends who told me they would babysit my kids on the following Friday night so I could have a break/date with my husband. One friend sent me a box with twelve small packages and notes to open each day for twelve days, giving me something to get through each day. I knew I could count on daily encouragement from two friends who sent me emails with uplifting words and quotes every day for weeks. A couple of loved ones sent me packages in the mail and told me to watch for them. Knowing something was on its way to brighten a future day was always so nice.

Don’t judge her appearance or her home’s disarray. All but the bare minimum of personal hygiene and appearance regimens¬†and any semblance of housekeeping flew out the window right behind my mental/emotional stability. I’m pretty sure I looked a lot like “death warmed over” when I was at my worst, and I didn’t really care. If you’re planning to visit your friend’s home, do tell her before you come, “I better not see a clean house when I get there,” or something else that lets her know that her home’s chaos is completely understandable and expected under the circumstances.

Do listen to that voice whispering in your head. If you wake up in the middle of the night and feel like you need to write your friend an encouraging letter or pray for her or call her, don’t hesitate. Listen to that voice. This happened to one of my friends, and she acted on that prompting, and it probably saved my life. If you keep getting a “feeling” that you should do something for your anxious friend, do it. Unless of course, it’s something mean. ;-)

Don’t let her feel like a burden. No matter how many times she calls you in tears, no matter how many times you’ve already told her, “Everything is going to alright,” no matter how low you’re running on patience, just let her know that you feel honored to support her in her trials and grateful that she feels comfortable confiding in you. It will mean the world to her.

Do smile when you see her. She may be miserable, but that doesn’t mean she wants people around her to pretend to be miserable too. Let your face light up when you see her. Show her with your body language that you’re confident she’s going to be fine. If she starts catastrophizing or recounting all her worst fears, smile and shake your head and say, “That’s not going to happen. You’re too strong for that. You’re going to be fine.”

I know I couldn’t have survived the past six months without the love and support of so many “angel” friends and family members. One after another called, arrived, sent a gift, or checked on me at just the right moment to get me through so many rough times. You could be that angel for your friend, and I hope you will try.