In this turbulent COVID-19 period, change is constant and it may be anxiety-provoking for many. Anxiety is an emotion that is familiar to everyone. We experience it ourselves and see it manifest in others as well. Anxiety can present in different ways, such as your colleague constantly putting off important tasks or discussions or your friend cancelling plans last minute — things you might not normally associate with anxiety.

Here are some common signs that your loved ones may be experiencing anxiety:

  1. They may come across as moody or easily irritable
  2. They may seem distracted or struggle to make decisions, or have thought patterns like believing the worst will happen and catastrophizing matters.
  3. They may complain about being tired and not sleeping well.
  4. They may cancel plans at the last minute and may distance themselves from others to avoid feared situations.
Myths about Anxiety (UPMC Western Behavioral Health, 2020)
MythsReality
Anxiety is not a real illness and you can just snap out of it.Some anxiety is normal in life. However, an anxiety disorder goes beyond the usual temporary worry and stress; the anxious thoughts can cause significant distress and interfere with daily life (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). In such circumstances, the anxiety might be chronic and difficult to manage alone; it may be time to seek help.
Anxiety will go away on its own, stop worrying!Anxiety may be extremely hard to handle alone as it is a deeply ingrained thought pattern that may be difficult to change or break out of.However, anxiety can be chronic and persistent, and if not dealt with properly, the anxiety symptoms are likely to worsen. Therapy may be needed to learn how to mitigate these symptoms.
Anxiety is only about worrying and being uptight. There are many types of anxiety disorders and may present in many different ways.

Some of the most common types of anxiety disorders include:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Panic Disorder
Social Phobia/Social Anxiety Disorder Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

While we might not mean it, these myths which we reflect in the way we speak to and about individuals with anxiety tend to invalidate their feelings and discourage them from seeking help. Thus, having the right understanding of anxiety positions us to be more effective in supporting our friends and family who are facing anxiety. There are also other practical ways we can assist them, as shown below.

How Can I Help?

  • Learn to recognize the signs of anxiety and choose to be patient with them
    • Individuals who are anxious tend to display the above behaviours. It can be easy to get frustrated when they struggle to do things as quickly as before, or snap at you over the smallest things. However, extend a little empathy and compassion, as we cannot see their internal battle.
  • Help them recognize and reframe unhelpful thought patterns
    • There is a correlation between one’s thoughts, emotions and behaviour. Anxious feelings can drive unhelpful thoughts which when examined, do not hold up. These thoughts can include catastrophizing (predicting the worst from the beginning), jumping to conclusions and discounting positive events. Ask your loved one, “Are these thoughts true? What are some other ways to interpret the situation?”
  • Allow them to take ownership over their recovery process 
    • Helping to solve their problems can reduce the ownership they have over the change they want to make in their lives. Also, claiming that “everything will be okay” is a promise we might not be able to keep. In the event that things are not fine, their anxiety increases because they are not prepared. Instead, instill hope by using “even if …”, then working through those options with them.
  • Keep an open mind, listen non-judgmentally and validate their feelings
    • Don’t bring your assumptions with you about what your loved one might be going through or feeling. Instead, allow them to share freely and vulnerably. This provides a safe space for them to sit with their emotions and think through how they can cope with it.
    • Simply asking, “What can I do to help right now?” and offering to sort things through together can assure them of your concern and love for them. Reassure them that they can cope, if and when their feared event occurs, so that they may gain confidence in their ability to get through stressful situations. 
    • While it may be harder to meet up due to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, you can still check on your friends by dropping them a quick text or giving them a short call to ask about their day!
  • Stay connected and suggest activities you can do together (e.g., watch a movie, exercise)
    • Bonding activities can release oxytocin, which is associated with feelings of trust, closeness and intimacy (Dickerson & Zoccola, 2009). This oxytocin reduces both stress and anxiety, and can even increase your loved one’s motivation to seek out more social contact and support. Developing close relationships thereby help both you and them make better, more careful decisions, decreasing your vulnerability to life stresses. It can also promote a sense of hope and security, and this can create a positive cycle of seeking greater social support. 

We may find it hard to distinguish between anxiety and an anxiety disorder, especially when they may present in similar ways. Take note that being anxious does not mean one has an anxiety disorder. The symptoms of anxiety disorder should persist for 6 months, cause significant distress, and disrupt daily functioning. Here are some signs that you or a loved one might be developing an anxiety disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 2013):

  • Excessive anxiety and worry
  • Fatigue
  • Restlessness
  • Increased muscle aches or soreness
  • Impaired concentration
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty sleeping

Sometimes, you may find yourself experiencing symptoms of anxiety and it is important to help yourself before you can help your loved ones.


How can I help myself?

  1. Connect with others: Loneliness and isolation can trigger or worsen anxiety, while talking about your worries face to face can often make them seem less overwhelming. 
  2. Manage stress: Look at your responsibilities and prioritise the important tasks, make sure to take breaks to avoid a burn out.
  3. Practice relaxation techniques: When practiced regularly, relaxation techniques such as mindfulness meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, and deep breathing can reduce anxiety and increase feelings of relaxation.
  4. Break out of unhelpful patterns: Strategies such as creating a worry period, challenging anxious thoughts, and learning to accept uncertainty can help you rationalise your thoughts and mitigate anxiety.
  5. Develop positive attitude change: Express gratitude by writing down one thing that you’re grateful for. This forces your mind to focus on positive aspects of the day, building resilience.

Ultimately, anxiety can feel very overwhelming and difficult to overcome, however it is possible to mitigate the symptoms of anxiety with a good support system and professional help, if needed. Let’s strive towards healthier living for our loved ones and for us!

References

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596

American Psychological Association. (2017). What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/ptsd-guideline/patients-and-families/cognitive-behavioral.

Dickerson, S. S., & Zoccola, P. M. (2009). Toward a biology of social support. In S. J. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), Oxford library of psychology. Oxford handbook of positive psychology (p. 519–526). Oxford University Press.

UPMC Western Behavioral Health. (2020). Myths and Facts About Anxiety. UPMC HealthBeat. https://share.upmc.com/2020/05/myths-and-facts-about-anxiety/.