Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorder in the U.S., affecting more than 18% of the population. They are even more common among children, affecting an estimated 25% of children between the ages of 13 and 18. The most common anxiety disorders are Specific Phobias, affecting 8.7% of the population, and Social Anxiety, affecting 6.8% of the population.
It is likely that you know someone with an anxiety disorder.
Although there are several different types of anxiety disorders, each with unique features, there are some common symptoms that might be a clue that someone is suffering from an anxiety disorder:
- The person indicates excessive anxiety or worry about future events. Some examples could be social situations, work demands, or separation from “safe” people or places such as a parent or the home.
- The person has feelings of panic and accompanying physiological reactions (sweaty palms, heart racing, heavy breathing) in certain situations.
- The person experiences sleep disturbances related to the anxiety or worry.
- The person has difficulty concentrating as a result of the anxiety or worry.
- You may also notice general signs of distress, like neglect of personal hygiene, weight gain or loss, a decline in performance at work or school, major changes in mood, or withdrawal from activities or relationships.
- There are two very important guidelines to think about, aside from symptoms. These are duration of symptoms and level of impairment. Anxiety is a normal reaction to stressful situations, and even high levels of anxiety can be healthy and beneficial at times. Disorders are only present when anxiety symptoms last for several weeks to months and significantly interfere with every day function or cause long-lasting distress.
Please note that it is not a good idea to attempt to diagnose or label a friend or family member. Only a mental health professional can diagnose an anxiety disorder, as many disorders have overlapping features, and can go together with other types of mental health difficulties. However, if you notice signs of anxiety, or just feel that something is not quite right with someone that you care about, it’s a good idea to reach out to ask the person how they are feeling. You could start with something neutral and supportive like, “It seems like you haven’t been quite yourself lately. Is there something going on that you want to talk about?”
What can I do to help a family member or a close friend?
One of the most important things you can do is to listen to your family member or friend talk about the things in his/her life that are sources of stress. A first instinct might be to offer advice or ideas for a “quick fix”. However, simply accepting your friend’s stress levels can help them deal with their anxiety, knowing that they can rely on you as a source of support even when their symptoms might be tough to watch. Studies show that social support from family and friends can be one of the strongest protective factors against debilitating levels of anxiety.
It may also be helpful to:
- Avoid shaming your friend for their anxiety. Comments like “just get over it” or “chill out” can be hurtful.
- Ask your friend how you can help.
- Be patient. If a friend is experiencing an episode of anxiety, it may not be helpful to intervene or try to fix it. It can be most helpful to be available and let your friend know that you support and love them.
- Support the idea of getting treatment. There can be a lot of stigma around seeking help for mental health difficulties. Showing your support for this may allow them to get over initial fears around taking that first step in getting professional help.
What can I do to help my spouse or partner?
Anxiety symptoms can put a major burden on relationships. In addition to seeing your partner experiencing high levels of fear or stress, you’re also likely to have more than the typical share of every day responsibilities. Here are four things you can try:
- Set goals: You and your partner can agree on key goals, and you can recognize accomplishments. For example, if you and your partner agree that you’re both feeling isolated, you could plan to attend one social occasion together every month.
- Support treatment: Research treatment options with your partner, and encourage treatment. There are a number of effective types of treatments for anxiety, and a number of them actively involve the partner and family members. Find a therapist in your area.
- Ask how you can help: Don’t feel like you should be able to read your partner’s needs without asking. Ask what you can do to help, and listen closely to what they say.
- Put yourself in their shoes: Acknowledge that you don’t understand what your partner is feeling when they experience a major bout of anxiety such as a panic attack.
It’s also very important to take care of yourself. This is not selfish. You can’t help your partner or support your family when you are completely overburdened. You could start by:
- Pursuing your own interests and hobbies. These activities will keep you energized, and remind you that you’re a real and interesting person, outside of your role as partner or parent.
- Keep up important relationships. Your friends and family are an important source of support for you too! Your social network can provide emotional support and discuss problems that your spouse may not be able to deal with.
- Seek professional help, if needed. Caregivers often experience symptoms of anxiety and depression themselves and may benefit from mental health treatment. You can take a look at how you are doing with this caregiver self-assessment tool.
What can I do to help my child?
Anxiety disorders often first appear in childhood. This is a very good time to intervene or seek treatment, because children’s brains are still developing, and can more easily adapt to new “modes” of thinking, relative to adult brains. Helping your child cope with an anxiety disorder can be a complex task, potentially involving family members, friends, teachers and counselors, and mental health professionals. These five basic tips may also help:
- Positively reinforce healthy behavior, rather than punishing or criticizing problem behaviors (like avoidance, complaints, sleep disturbances)
- Recognize or praise the child for her own progress or improvement, thinking about how far she has come, rather than comparing to a set of standards.
- Focus on developing healthy habits that will benefit everyone in your family, such as a good sleep routine, healthy meals and snack, and regular exercise.
- Foster the development of a strong peer network. It’s probably no surprise to hear that peer relationships become a major source of support during adolescence. Encourage your child to engage in interests (like arts, music, and sports) that will help them develop and maintain friendships. If your child already has a very busy and structured schedule, try to carve out some time for more relaxed socializing. However, note that sometimes peers can be the source of anxiety, whether through peer pressure or bullying. Check in with your child about the nature of their relationships with others in their social circle (school or class).
- If your child is experiencing separation anxiety, be supportive and caring when they are in distress but try to avoid changing behavior to overly accommodate the anxiety. If you notice the separation anxiety lasting for longer than four weeks, seek professional help from a psychologist or counselor in order to learn effective behavioral techniques to treat the anxiety.
Just as in the case of taking care of a spouse or partner with anxiety, taking care of a child with anxiety can make you lose sight of your own mental and physical health. See our self-help tips above.
What can I do to help a co-worker?
Signs of mental health difficulty can be different in the workplace than in other settings. The Harvard Mental Health Letter outlines signs that you may notice in your co-workers, which could indicate a significant problem. For anxiety disorders, these can include restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, excess worrying, and a general impairment in quality of work.
If you think a friend or colleague at work is experiencing an anxiety disorder or other mental health difficulty, you should carefully consider how you react. Your actions in the workplace can have work-related and legal consequences. However, intervening early before an emergency situation arises can help prevent greater consequences for your colleague’s career, health, and safety.
The American Psychiatric Association supports a workplace training program that can help you identify mental health issues in the workplace, and helpful actions to take.
For a practical and sensitive review of mental health issues in the workplace, check out this helpful approach.
Carla Nasca, Ph.D., is a post-doctoral fellow of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in the laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at the Rockefeller University, New York. Dr. Nasca received her B.A. in Molecular Biology and her M.S. in Electrophysiology from the University of Palermo in Italy. She earned her Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Pharmacology from the University Sapienza in Rome, Italy, before moving to The Rockefeller University under the mentorship of Dr. Bruce McEwen.