How can I help a friend with anxiety?

A young man explains how two sentences changed his life.

Mental health and wellbeingFriends and relationships
By Parent Zone ·
images: 1STunningART/stock.adobe.com

Greg (not his real name)

Young author

“I couldn’t even speak to my closest friends about it, because I didn’t want to be pitied”

“Saved your life!” The peak of my brother’s humour. Whenever I stood on the ledge of a dauntingly tall building or rock face, the familiar shove in the back, followed by the instant hauling back, was a regular occurrence for me.

I lead with that story because everyone can remember that feeling in your stomach when it happens. The brief but very real sinking feeling when your brain thinks that you’re falling from this edge, before you get pulled back.

This is the best way I have of describing my personal experience with anxiety. Overwhelming dread, accompanied by nausea, often culminating in vomiting in a bathroom.

Detailing my experience is to show you some of my thoughts on anxiety. The first is how prevalent it is in society, in a wide range of people. In Australia (my home country), 26.3 per cent of people between the ages of 16-85 have experienced an anxiety disorder. It’s a lot right? More than you’d think. Why would people hide the fact they aren’t okay?

The second is the issue that consumed me for years, an issue I feel is not addressed enough. I want to talk about what to do without professional help, which sadly in Australia – like elsewhere – is often too expensive for younger people.

The expense of getting professional help is such a big problem facing young people today. More affordable help, though, is a topic for another discussion.

I want to talk about the person getting help. Not the help itself, but what a person goes through to decide to get help. What you can do to make them feel okay with it.

Personally, my anxiety occurs seemingly at random, with no warning or triggers. My friends and family are my diversion; they unknowingly allow me to momentarily escape.

Some people are brave, much braver than I was. Some people realise there is a problem and find ways to get support. But I (and others I’m sure) find it almost impossible to talk about. Why?

I’m absolutely terrified of being treated differently.

Like I was wrapped in cotton wool.

That my friends and family would change the way they treat me, for fear of triggering something, even though they’re my getaway to escape this.

For years, I kept my struggles to myself. I wanted to try and find help. But I couldn’t even speak to my closest friends about it, because I didn’t want to be pitied. I just wanted someone to talk to about it.

I even started buying Valium from a dealer. So that I could escape a little, to just sleep and not lie in an anxious mess all night.

Two weeks ago, I finally told my best friend my problem. After five long years dealing with it. I really struggled to get it out. I told him the last thing I wanted was for him not to joke or make fun of me; to treat me differently. He laughed. He said that would never happen. He wouldn’t treat me differently, but he’d keep an eye out.

That reassurance in those two sentences did more for me than he’d ever know.

I want to explain how you personally can make a difference. What I’ll ask you to do is not post a selfie on social media with a message along the lines of, “Mental health is a struggle that… tag five friends and pass it on!” What does that really achieve?

Instead, reach out to five friends. Ask them if everything is okay. Be there for them if they need it. If everyone in the world did this, imagine how much support we’d have?

I feel better most days, but I still have bad ones. I still struggle at times. But now I know someone can be there for me. He’s still my best friend and he treats me the same as before I told him. Even though I couldn’t get professional help, I already feel the burden slowly falling away.

Reach out to a friend today, because they might be scared about talking to someone like I was. Let them know nothing has changed; you’ll just be there if they need you.

It will make more difference than you could ever imagine.

Reference

  1. ABS National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, 2007 (2008), p 27.