Anxiety is on the rise. It seems that nearly every other Facebook post I see on my newsfeed is some quote or meme about anxiety. Everyone has anxiety to some extent, but there are, of course, a significant amount of people who have anxiety that controls them.
Anxiety has a wide spectrum. There are many disorders of anxiety such as Panic Disorder, Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), the large amount of different phobias, and my own disorder: Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD). No anxiety is the same, and each person suffers with their anxiety in unique ways as well.
As someone who suffers with SAD, I have a fear of being judged, being viewed negatively, and rejected in social and performance situations. In my interactions with people, my mind is constantly preoccupied with being worried about appearing anxious to other people (such has stumbling over my words) and being viewed as awkward and boring. As a result, I often avoid social situations, and if I cannot avoid a social situation, I experience significant stress and fear (anxiety). I’ll even get so frustrated or anxious that I’ll get up and leave without warning lest I have an abnormal, physiological reaction and embarrass myself even more.
Beyond these social situations, I spend a lot of time self-evaluating. After every encounter, I dwell on it and replay the conversation or interaction in my head, heavily critiquing my interactions and the words I said from how I said it, the tone of voice I used, my pattern of speech, how often I spoke, and so on. And I always come to the conclusion that others find me repugnant.
The thing with anxiety is that those who suffer with it are constantly living in their own head. I read a tweet on Twitter not too long ago that said, “Anxiety is really just conspiracy theories about yourself.” Whilst it is funny, it is also true! People with anxiety live inside their own heads and formulate all sorts of lies about themselves—conspiracy theories, if you will. When I replay my day-to-day interactions and conversations with people in my head, I’m formulating conspiracy theories about myself that aren’t true.
Anxiety is tricky to treat and is to be treated with discretion. For some, they may have a full blown disorder. For others like me, anxiety is more symptomatic of another condition. For me, my social anxiety is symptomatic of depression. In talking with my therapist and my doctor, they have decided it’s best to treat my depression since it appears to them that the depression feeds my anxiety rather than the other way around. After being on antidepressants for a while, it has not only been increasing my mood, but my anxiety is also getting a lot better. I don’t self-isolate as much and I’m gradually learning to stop living in my head. This is not the case for everybody with depression and anxiety. Mine is simply a unique case, as everyone’s is.
I have spouted enough exposition. If you have a loved one who has anxiety, how do you best serve them and comfort them? First, let’s talk about how you don’t care for them.
“Everyone has problems. It can’t be that bad.”
I hear this one a lot. In trying to open up to certain people about my anxiety and being vulnerable with them—which is extremely hard for me to do—this is the response I often get. They say things like, “Get over it.” “It can’t be that bad.” “Everyone has problems.”
This is an utter lack of empathy. As I’m studying to be a pastor, part of my training is pastoral counseling and learning how to empathise with our parishioners. In pastoral counseling, our objective is not to “fix” them. We’re not napkins owned by Bounty; we’re not “fixer-uppers.” We are shepherds; we care for our flock.
To empathise is to understand the other’s situation in their shoes. That is, understanding their thought processes and their feelings in their experience, not how they should feel because you think that’s how it should be. That’s not empathy; that’s apathy.
You can’t say to a person with anxiety, “It can’t be that bad” because it is that bad to us. That’s why we have anxiety! You can’t say to us, “Get over it” because that will only cause more anxiety. You can’t say to us, “Everyone has problems” because we’re not stupid. We know everyone has problems; the issue is that we have no control over our anxiety and we don’t understand why.
“Facts don’t care about your feelings.”
This is true. Fact’s don’t care about your feelings; that’s why they’re facts. This is also true in politics and science. But this is not helpful for the person with anxiety. For one with anxiety, it is all about our feelings! Saying facts don’t care about our feelings is completely unhelpful. It is also an issue of empathy again; it is apathetic. To tell a person with anxiety they shouldn’t feel a certain way because the facts say otherwise is unhelpful, apathetic, thoughtless, and careless.
Suppose I’m a pastor counseling someone about an emotional experience she had. Let’s say she found out her abusive boyfriend left her for another woman and she’s described her feelings as being sad and feeling worthless. If I were to take the “facts don’t care about your feelings” approach, I would say, “Well, obviously he’s unable to commit to a single person and he’s abused you. So, he’s really just doing you a favour and you should be grateful and rejoicing, not sad.”
That is terrible pastoral care! Are those facts true? Of course! Factually, she is better off, but the facts don’t matter insofar as her emotional experience is concerned. As a pastor, I need to deal with her emotions first and guide her toward finding joy in the Lord and her worth and identity in Christ, not in whom she’s with. Only in dealing with her emotions first will she then come to see the fact that she is better off. As a pastor, my duty is not to present the facts to her and prove that logic and reasoning negates her feelings. Rather, I enter her experience with her and provide her comfort with empathy and the Scriptures.
So it is with anxiety. Let’s say I’m having a moment where after a social situation, I’m fearful that the people I interacted with are going to hate me and reject me. If you were to say to me, “They don’t hate you” whilst listing facts as to reasons why, I’m not going to find that particularly helpful because in my mind, I’m thinking, “How the heck do you know? You don’t know their mind. You don’t know the future. But I do because in my experience, I’ve been rejected and abandoned a lot.” It would be more helpful and empathetic to acknowledge my emotions and talk through them with me rather than trying to rationalise my feelings away.
Now that you know what not to do, what do you do?
1. Acknowledge Our Emotions
Anxiety is not a rational disorder. Neither are emotions rational. I don’t care how rational you are, no one has an emotionally rational reaction. “Emotionally rational reaction” doesn’t even make sense. No one assesses a situation rationally and says to themselves, “Okay, based on these facts, I’m going to react emotionally this way.” No! That’s absurd! That’s not how emotions work! We have an emotional reaction before we even think about it rationally.
Because anxiety is not rational, a rational response to someone’s anxiety is not going to help. In fact, it will just make things worse. Instead, acknowledge that our emotions are real. Acknowledge that we are having a real experience. Empathise with us—that is, understand where we are coming from and why we feel the way we do.
One of Jesus’ Beatitudes is, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). The opposite of this would be, “Cursed are those who mourn, for facts don’t care about their feelings.” Accept that our emotions are real. Comfort us by mourning with us. Comfort us with the Word of God. Rather than explaining our irrational thoughts with facts, help us to see our irrational thoughts by helping us to understand what we are feeling.
For example, in describing my anxiety with my therapist, one time I talked about my anxiety around women. I talked about my ex-fiancé who cheated on me and multiple women who reject me because of my pastoral call, my conservative values (e.g. pro-life, abstinence, etc.), and my introverted personality.
In these experiences, I told him how I’m always fearful that the more I am myself around a woman I like and the more I open up and become vulnerable, the more likely she is to reject me. He did not present facts that say I should not be fearful. Instead, he acknowledged my fear, my sadness, and my loneliness. He empathised with me.
Instead of presenting facts before me, he posed this question to me, “What does Ricky need? What can you give yourself that you desire from a woman or a friend?” It was a good question. I thought about it for about a minute or so and said I need to give myself love and acceptance. In other words, I need to learn to love and accept myself for who I am—who I am as an introvert and, ultimately, as a new creation of Christ and a child of God.
This was extremely helpful for me. He didn’t present facts that say why I shouldn’t be fearful of always being rejected when I’m being myself and when I open up. Instead, he accepted that my feelings were real, and he posed a question before me that challenged me to realise that if I am comfortable in my own skin and love whom God created me to be, that fear will go away. This has been extremely helpful in my healing process.
So, don’t ask us why we feel anxious. Instead, ask us how we are feeling and address the emotions, not what the facts say how we “should have” responded.
2. Distract Us
This is incredibly helpful. The purpose of distracting us is not to ignore the problem. Rather, distraction is to help our minds focus on something positive rather than its current negative focus, especially when our anxiety is completely uncontrollable. This is why we often see in movies and TV shows that when someone is having a panic attack, a loved one has them breathe into a paper bag and focus on their breathing. Focusing on their breathing gets them to stop focusing on what’s causing them extreme fear.
For people like me who don’t normally have physiological reactions, distracting us with a topic or activity we enjoy is incredibly helpful. For example, in therapy, if my anxiety is getting particularly bad when talking about a situation, he will say something like, “Tell me about your poetry. What have you written lately?” And I’ll calm down and will begin talking about my poetry. A friend has done something similar in which she said, “What’s that new video game about?” And it helped, talking about Destiny 2 for a long time. Participating with us in an activity is also really helpful, whether it’s playing video games, a board game, watching TV, talking about a common interest, whatever.
3. Be Patient
Again, do not rationalise our experience. In talking with us about our feelings, we might ramble, talk in circles, and we might even be really confusing. That’s okay. What’s important is that you are present and attending to our emotional experience. Do not get angry with us and snap at us.
4. Give Words of Affirmation
In giving love and receiving love, words of affirmation is my top love language, so this is extremely helpful for me. But it is also helpful for everyone with anxiety no matter how high or low this love language is for them.
Remember, anxiety is really just conspiracy theories about ourselves. We formulate lies about ourselves. To prove to us that our conspiracies about ourselves are lies, affirm what is true about us.
In my Pastoral Care & the Word class at seminary, we learnt pastoral counseling. We had to do a practicum for the class where we practice our active listening skills (what I said earlier about empathising) by practicing with our classmates, whilst also practicing confidentiality. During the practicum, I opened up to four men about my social anxiety.
One of them, after we were finished with the formality of the counseling, said to me, “I want you to know that whenever [my wife] and I sit and talk with you, [my wife] always says, ‘You know, I always really like talking with Ricky,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, me too.'” This might not mean much to you if you don’t have social anxiety or some other anxiety, but for me, this touched me deeply. It was incredibly encouraging to hear that. You have to understand that I’ve created the conspiracy in my head that I’m socially awkward, boring, and nobody likes me. So, to hear that authenticity from someone proves my conspiracy wrong, and it is extremely comforting. I always go back to what he said when I’m experiencing really bad social anxiety.
So, give us affirmation that what we believe about ourselves is untrue. Not with facts, but with a personal affirmation like my friend did. Something like, “You know, you might think this about you, but I find you to be [positive, true affirmation].” To use another example, whilst I always feel anxious in social situations, a friend once told me, “I find you really calming, gentle, caring, and easy to talk to,” which affirmed to me that I’m not nearly as awkward as I think myself to be.
Anxiety is not easy on the person with anxiety, and it’s not easy on the ones we love. But with empathy, patience, and compassion, you are able to help us heal and come to a better understanding about ourselves.