A little early with this blog, but it was important for me to share with you today. I want to make it clear that I am not a psychologist and my counseling credential is non-medical. I do not diagnose or treat medical conditions. This blog is from my own experience with anxiety and the long road I took to get those close to me to understand the dynamics of this illness.
Loving someone with an illness is never easy no matter what the illness. Mental illness is especially hard because there are no physical signs of the medical problem. It’s hard to remember that the behavior that occurs during and anxiety attack is actually part of a chronic illness.
To make it even more difficult, you, as a loved one, can often be the target for emotionally charged assaults that are the manifestation of the inner chaotic thoughts going on in the mind of someone suffering an anxiety episode. Anxiety manifests in lots of different ways but is always emotional. Anger, sobbing, illogical comments, fear, blaming, hysterics, and even shutting down are some of the ways that a person having an episode will react.
You feel like you are being attacked. You feel like they are just trying to get attention. You feel like they are being dramatic. You feel like they are manipulating you. You are taking their behavior very personally and feel angry and frustrated in return.
This is a natural reaction when you view the situation that way. It is not easy being involved in your loved one’s anxiety episode. It isn’t fair to feel like you are on the receiving end of an attack.
But, then, it isn’t fair for your loved one to be considered a crazy, bitchy, psycho, attention seeking, drama queen when in reality they have a health condition that creates these medically urgent events.
That’s right. An anxiety attack is a medically urgent event. That means it requires some level of medical attention – whether self-medication, partner supported medical assistance, or, when severe, a trip to the hospital or therapist.
Imagine someone with asthma. When they have an asthma attack it is a medically urgent situation which requires immediate attention. They medicate themselves with a nebulizer or inhaler, or someone assists them if necessary. If it is severe enough, emergency services are requested.
What doesn’t happen with a person having an asthma attack is for their loved one to say to them,
Did you take your meds?
What is wrong with you?!
You’re acting crazy!
You’re just trying to get attention!
Get a hold of yourself.
I’m leaving if you are going to act crazy!
Stop acting this way!
Don’t speak to me like that!
No. We see an asthma attack as a medical event out of the person’s control and we make sure they have the medical assistance they need to recover and we offer them kindness, compassion, and understanding. We don’t blame them for their episode. We don’t shame them. We don’t tell them just to stop having the asthma attack and get over it.
But we do that to our loved ones when they have anxiety attacks (and other mental illness episodes).
I know its hard to deal with a person having a mental health crisis especially if your loved one expresses anger when their anxiety flares up. Verbal attacks are ugly and hurtful. Emotional situations of any type can be volatile and lead to major fights and even violence. And this happens with people with anxiety especially when their support system misunderstands the dynamics of this illness.
Ten Things to Keep in Mind When You Love Someone with Anxiety
- Anxiety is a medical illness that can require many levels of urgent treatment and long-term therapy. It’s not nervousness. It’s not shyness. It’s not a temper tantrum. It’s a very real, very scary, medical illness.
- The thought process of someone suffering an anxiety episode can be extremely chaotic and irrational. Negative thoughts, suspicion, finding fault in others to blame these feelings on, not being able to control their mind or slow their thoughts, making excuses, flaring temper, fear – intense fear, self-blame, wanting to stop the thoughts but being unable, knowing they’ve said something to offend but don’t know how to undo it, don’t know how to end the episode, and often want to die because of feeling they are alone, ashamed, guilty, and out of control. It’s a complete shitstorm of chaos and lack of control of one’s own mind. It’s awful. It’s draining. It’s so very hard to explain.
- Unlike someone with a physical illness, like asthma, the person carries immense guilt and shame after an episode making recovery hard and incomplete. It is utterly isolating in the aftermath. A person with asthma has no need to apologize for an asthma attack. Apologies are the minimum amends someone with anxiety often has to provide.
I’m sorry I couldn’t breathe.I’m sorry my illness left me irrational and out of control.
- It’s not personal. It feels so personal, I know. But the things they are saying are a manifestation of the chaos in their own mind seeking relief. It’s not about you, not really.
- When you react angry or frustrated or without compassion, it will increase their anxiety.
- Shaming and blaming leads to higher anxiety in future episodes because they know you will react negatively and uncaring. They know they are alone and ashamed for their urgent medical situation. Anything you say during the episode needs to be with the intention of providing first aid and medical care.
- They just want to be helped. They want the medical care you would give to someone having an asthma attack. They want talked off the ledge. They want to be brought down out of their heads. They want the negative thoughts to stop. They want relief. They want to be loved and cared for with kindness and compassion – especially when their illness makes them seem so unlovable.
- When you respond to an urgent medical episode with kindness and compassion, the next anxiety attack can be lessened because of the trust that they have that you will help them. Your support and compassion is what any partner deserves from you – and you deserve the same in return. Be as supportive and kind as you can to get your loved one to a place of recovery from the episode.
- You can discuss the incident rationally after recovery. This includes any hurt feelings you have about things that were said in anxiety. Do so with a desire to heal, not harm, blame or shame. . Communicate your feelings, but during a medical event is just not a very good time.
- You deserve support and help too. Meet with your loved one’s doctors and therapists and make sure you practice self-care. You don’t deserve to be harmed because you love someone.
You can love someone with mental illness, and we sure deserve to be loved for who we are – medical illness and all. It’s not an easy path, but no illness is easy – not asthma, not cancer, not a broken leg. Stress, frustration, and emotional wounds are easy to pile up. Communicate. Get support. Take care of yourself. Love as you would want to be loved.
I hope this helps. Misunderstanding this illness makes everything so much more painful.
With love and hope,