This post is mainly for care givers and those who support someone with Anxiety or Panic Disorder.
One of the biggest problems concerning mental illness is the lack of guidance. Unlike a physical condition such as a stomach bug or a broken bone, there aren’t any clear instructions to guarantee recovery. Doctors can only make ‘suggestions’ without concrete proof. Not exactly the kind of thing you want to hear when you’re desperate, (trust me.)
So the responsibility for care mainly falls on a person’s nearest and dearest.
From a very young age I’ve been a good listener. I’m the friend who gives advice about everything from relationships to interview outfits, (hopefully good advice!)
Without meaning to sound boastful – I know how to comfort people. Mainly because I care… probably too much in some cases.
It therefore seemed like a cruel irony over the years to find that no one could comfort me. This certainly wasn’t through a lack of trying on anyone’s part, they just never seemed to say or do the right things. The world is a lonely place when you can’t ask anyone for help. I cried myself to sleep many nights and sometimes I wish that I could go back to that girl. I’d tell her that ‘everything would be ok in the end’ because she certainly didn’t think so at the time.
Anyway, then I started to think about the situation in a different way. The fears that come with anxiety cannot be soothed in a conventional way because they aren’t rational. Only I knew what I needed to hear. So how could I expect my loved ones to help me without telling them how? Think about it, would IKEA expect you to put a wardrobe together without instructions?
So if I wanted things to improve then I needed to take a more proactive approach.
Therefore, I’d like to share some tips from my own personal set of ‘instructions’ in the hope that they will help others.
Care givers make a lot of common mistakes (through no fault of their own) and after years of experience I’d like to point out the top five.
- Asking too many questions.
- Panicking themselves
- Losing their temper
- Trying to force the person to ‘think positive’
- Preventing self help
Don’t ask questions
From experience, I can barely remember my address when I’m having an anxiety or panic attack. It’s almost impossible to think straight. Therefore, asking me multiple questions will provoke an emotional reaction. Even innocent ones such as; What’s wrong? Or Why are you shaking? Can frustrate me. When the mind isn’t functioning rationally asking questions will highlight this to the sufferer thereby making them feel even more stressed. So try and refrain from this completely.
Also, don’t try and ‘fix’ the problem. Men are more guilty of this one tbh, (sorry to play the sexist card.) Probably because they don’t menstruate and have therefore never burst into tears over a spilt cup of tea. You cannot fix an anxiety/panic attack because technically there isn’t anything wrong and suggestions will only make matters worse. Just let the sufferer ‘feel’ their situation without interruption. E.g. If they’re crying, let them cry. It’ll release the pressure faster.
During a ‘freak out’ I’m hyper sensitive to the reactions of those around me. Therefore, during any kind of attack or stressful event it’s imperative for my care giver remain calm. Why? Well because I feed off their emotions. If they panic then this will only increase my anxiety. Two years ago, during an attack a colleague said to me, oh my God should we call an ambulance? I won’t go into too much detail, but my response was something like; F*********!Is it that bad? Am I dying or something!
As a care giver this is a tricky mistake to avoid. It’s natural to feel distressed if someone you love is in pain. However, it’s crucial to hide these feelings.
Try to remember: It’s an attack, nothing bad will happen physically. (I say this because many sufferers falsely believe they’re having a heart attack.) But you don’t need to worry. It will pass in time.
Here are a few things that people have unknowingly said to me which exposed their own panic: Oh God I don’t know what to say – I’m not helping am I – This is really bad, why can’t you calm down? If in doubt, say very little and simply hold them to you. Never underestimate the value of a strong hug!
Don’t lose your temper
The English are suckers for ‘tough love.’ We take great pride in the stiff upper lip mentality and this has been passed down.
In many ways this attitude is useful. If in a war like situation I’d want to be with a general who kicked arse, rather than offered group hugs. However, I can assure you that this is not the approach to take when dealing with an anxious person! Phrases such as; pull yourself together – snap out of it – stop being soft – will only make things worse. You have to understand that the sufferer is desperate to ‘snap out of it’ but they don’t know how. Kindness and patience are always the better options. Some of the best things to say are simple: I love you – I know that you’re scared but this will pass.
It’s also important to note that anxiety sufferers constantly worry that they are a ‘burden’ to their care givers and will apologise frequently. I do this all the time and it drives my boyfriend mad. So be prepared to repeat reassurances A LOT. Pretend that you’re talking to a robot that forgets everything after ten minutes. It’s difficult I’m sure, but stay calm and don’t lose your temper.
Don’t force them to ‘think positive’
This one is difficult to explain, so bear with me. Imagine that someone close to you has just died and you’re naturally very sad. Now imagine that a friend says – look on the bright side – or – think about positive things – How useless and infuriating would that piece of advice be? Ok now apply this to scenario to an anxiety sufferer, because that’s how they feel when you say the same thing to them. Not that I’m in any way suggesting the pain of loss is the same as an anxiety attack, but the feeling of hopelessness is similar. YOU CANNOT THINK POSITIVE BECAUSE… A) You can barely think straight, let alone positively B) The brain is flooded with negative emotions and any attempt to battle them is fruitless. It’s best to let them dissipate naturally.
In a nutshell, pointing out their inability to think ‘happy thoughts’ during an attack is about as much use as a chocolate teapot.
Don’t stop them from doing what feels right
This one is subjective, so don’t take as gospel. For instance, if your loved one feels that slicing his/her fingers off ‘feels right’ then I would recommend an intervention!
However, it’s important to remember that the brain is an remarkable thing and will eventually adapt to comfort itself. Therefore, don’t try to prevent this from happening.
During a panic attack I like to:
- Sit on the floor in the hallway – it’s weird I know, but I find it soothing.
- Have Dan either sat next to me or stood in the kitchen where I can see him – Rigby usually sits at my feet.
- Use the toilet multiple times – watch out!
- Repeat the phrase; I’m so scared – at least five times.
- Drink a small glass of red wine whilst reading a book out loud – again it’s weird, but it helps.
Dan barely registers any of the above these days. It’s completely ‘normal’ in our flat!
He’d admit that during my first attacks he would try to make me sit on the couch or drink some water. But he now listens and trusts my instincts, which is the best thing.
So my point is, if a loved one wants to do something ‘slightly unconventional’ then let them.. whether that be crying in the bath, lying on the kitchen floor or singing nursery rhymes. However, as I said, this one is also subjective. So play it by ear. For instance, I wouldn’t let someone run around the house screaming, as this is anti-social behaviour. But rather than stopping them point blank, perhaps suggest that you go for a walk to burn off the adrenalin.
Comfort is a precious thing to someone who is suffering with mental illness. The presence of a friendly face and calming words can do wonders.
I hope this helps. Feel free to share any of your own tips!
Categories: Advice for care givers