9 Tips for supporting a woman living with anxiety
As someone who has lived with panic disorder for well over half of my life, I can confidently say that learning to live with anxiety has been an adventure—and a major part of my self-exploration. Yes, I say, “live with” because panic disorder has no cure. There is a multitude of snake oil salesmen (and women) who will tell you otherwise, but science and those living with the disorder both know better.
I have a long list of suggestions for coping with anxiety attacks while living your best and most adventurous life. It’s true that I have worked hard and found several ways to manage my disorder and enjoy lots of adrenaline dumping fun including hang gliding, zip lining, and epic solo hikes to remote locations. But, I think the most important information I can impart is not necessarily for those living with an anxiety disorder. It’s for the ones who love them.
Women & Anxiety Disorders
First, let’s go over some stats so you can understand why I’m writing this specifically for the loved ones of women living with anxiety or panic disorder.
Findings from research on anxiety and gender are abundant, and studies have overwhelmingly found that women are significantly more likely than men to develop an anxiety disorder over their lifetime. In fact, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), they are twice as likely. And, perhaps more importantly, women are more likely to be disabled by illness because of their anxiety than men.
These findings suggest that gender plays a big role in how people acquire and are affected by anxiety disorders. And, this is why as a woman living with panic disorder, I have very specific advice for those living with and loving a woman with anxiety.
Partners & Loved Ones of Women with Anxiety Disorder
Family, friends, and partners play a big role in how easily and quickly a woman with p
I shared that in my case, I was alone on the road heading from Berkley, California to Eastern Washington. I thought I was having a heart attack, and the firemen and police who came to my assistance were sure I was on drugs. Neither, of course, was true.
At the time, anxiety disorders weren’t nearly as widely or openly talked about as they are now. The solution the physician gave my family and I once I was diagnosed, was a cocktail of meds—some addictive, others borderline disabling. Looking back, I’m not sure the prescribing doctor offered any tangible advice on how to deal with panic attacks while maintaining normal daily activities. So home I went with parents who had no idea what to say or do and a bag full of pills that would eventually turn me into a zombie.
Even long after I stopped using Xanax to manage my panic attacks and generalized anxiety, the people in my life that I depended on the most struggled with how to adequately support me without feeling worn down and frustrated themselves.
While there is far more information about anxiety and panic disorder available to the masses today then there was back when I had my first attack, the amount of tips and tools available for the loved ones of those struggling with anxiety is far from adequate.
That’s got to change.
How to Support and Love a Woman with Panic Disorder
Watching someone you love experience a panic attack is frightening, and as time goes on, it can even become frustrating. Additionally, a woman who has panic disorder likely experiences generalized anxiety in between attacks, making daily life exhausting for both her and the ones she depends on most.
The following suggestions are drawn from my own life experience—not gleaned from articles or studies I found online. You may find some of them useful. Others may not work for you or apply to your situation. Know that each woman experiences anxiety differently, and what works for one woman might not work for another.
9 Tips for supporting a woman with anxiety or panic disorder
Don’t try to fix it
As much as you want to, you can’t fix the situation. When a woman is experiencing anxiety or a panic attack, the last thing she needs is someone saying, “Just do XYZ and you’ll be fine!” Or, “Just relax!” Telling someone what to do when they are in the middle of a high-stress moment only increases tension. And frankly, it’s belittling.
Sympathize, don’t Empathize
If you don’t have an anxiety or panic disorder, then you don’t understand what someone is going through when they are in the middle of an attack. Sure, you may have experienced intense stress in your life. You may have even had a singular panic attack at some point. But one panic attack does not a disorder make.
Things that are helpful to say include, “I’m so sorry you are struggling right now, what can I do to help?” or “My heart goes out to you. If you need anything at all, I am right here.” Or, if your loved one is in the middle of an attack, you can say, “I’m not going anywhere, I’m right here for you.” or “What can I do to help you feel safe?”
Don’t say: “I’ve totally had an attack before. Try these relaxation exercises, they worked for me.” Or, “Oh, I had panic disorder once, but I started yoga and I’m totally better now. You should come to class with me.”
This sounds like a no-brainer, but I have gotten into arguments (with boyfriends and partners) more times than I can count while in the midst of a panic attack. While the first time you witness a loved one’s panic attack is frightening, the hundredth time can be downright annoying. It’s frustrating to watch someone freak out when you know very well they are not going to die. And it might even make you feel angry when they won’t hear you when you tell them the obvious: “This is just another panic attack.”
If you can’t say something supportive, don’t say anything at all. An argument will just intensify the attack and it may even lengthen the duration. Also, it makes you look like an asshole.
Do this instead:
If your loved one is in the middle of a panic attack and you find yourself getting frustrated offer to draw a warm bath. Heat soothes the nervous system. If they are too upset to manage to get undressed and into the tub, offer a firm hug. Compression helps quiet the nerves. Weighted blankets and sandbags come in useful in these situations as well. Have some on hand to offer up.
If you are just too frustrated, call someone else to sit with her while you take a breather. In other words, after making sure she is safe and supported, leave.
Encourage but don’t force
We all want the people we love to be healthy and happy. Women in the middle of an aggravated anxiety disorder are likely to not be a lot of fun. They may not want to go out or feel too anxious to go on adventures. Some cases may be so bad that something as simple as watching a suspenseful show triggers an attack.
If you notice your loved one withdrawing because of her anxiety, gently encourage her to get out with you. Plan short, easy outings to keep her engaged with life. Every success she has will give her the courage she needs to do the next thing. If however, she really doesn’t want to go to that party or show you’ve been planning on attending together forever, don’t make her. The last thing you want is for her to have an attack in the middle of an outing reaffirming her worst fears: she isn’t capable of doing life.
Watch your words
Women living with panic disorder need to know there is hope. Don’t say things reinforce the fear that she may never be able to do some of the things she wants to because of her disorder. For example, when you return from an adventure like zip lining, don’t say things like, “Man, you would have totally freaked out,” or, “I’m so glad you didn’t come. You couldn’t have handled it.” Plan for the future as if she will one day live confidently without anxiety and be able to join you (because she will).
Additionally, and this should go without saying, don’t say things like, “you’re crazy,” when arguing. Just don’t.
Be aware of the role of hormones
Monthly cycles and menopause can trigger a dormant disorder. Hormones are a bitch. Women have it hard. Be aware that your loved one’s cycle may play a role in her anxiety. This is good and bad. It’s good because if you find a pattern, you can prepare for the bad moments because you’ll know they are coming. It’s bad because experiencing intense anxiety on a monthly basis just sucks. Additionally, the onset of menopause can wake a dormant disorder. Research and prepare ahead of time. Ask how you can be helpful. And don’t make period or aging jokes—they aren’t funny.
The best thing you can do if you have a woman in your life with anxiety is to educate yourself. Read the books. Go online and google like crazy. Talk to counselors or friends who have experience either dealing with loved ones affected by anxiety or who have dealt with their own anxiety disorders.
Be an advocate
This is a big one. Women’s thoughts, opinions, and ideas are discredited because of gender on a regular basis. Add an anxiety disorder, and they’ve got two big strikes against them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had arguments with doctors who discredited my ailments and pains because of my history with anxiety. Be an advocate. Say something when you witness someone belittling or discrediting your loved one because of her disorder.