A Toolkit For When Other People's Anxiety Affects Us

Posted On Tuesday, 23 October 2018
A Toolkit For When Other People's Anxiety Affects Us

Anxiety is a pervasive illness: studies show that spending time with people who are stressed or nervous can trigger our own anxiety through proximation.

For Americans, the prospect of “spreading” anxiety may help explain why generalized anxiety is the most common form of mental illness in the country, affecting about 18.1 percent of the adult population.

If someone you love struggles with anxiety, it’s important to set boundaries and understand the symptoms, origins, and triggers of their mental illness, so that you are better equipped to manage your own mental health during times of high stress.

Recognize Symptoms & Triggers

The first step is to familiarize yourself with the symptoms of generalized anxiety and how these differ from occasional periods of stress. Across the board, Americans demonstrate varying measures of anxiety and when they might choose to seek professional help. As a good rule of thumb, if someone is feeling stressed for more than five percent of the time they are awake, that is a signal their anxiety might require therapeutic intervention.

There is also a genetic factor: children with anxious parents often inherit their parents’ anxiety in adulthood, which may explain why your loved one is stressed without a root cause. Likewise, if you know your partner experiences routine bouts of anxiety, take note of their triggers so you can prepare and anticipate for regular bouts of anxiety attacks.

Destigmatize Anxiety in Others

Many people feel ashamed or embarrassed about their symptoms of anxiety, which can exacerbate their fear of having an anxiety attack in public. There are a surprising number of triggers for anxiety, many of which occur unprompted and in our daily, public lives. As a friend or partner, the best thing you can do is reassure them that showing symptoms of stress (sweating, leg-jittering, etc) is totally normal. Normalizing behaviors associated with anxiety helps to destigmatize the role anxiety plays in everyday life. More broadly, the destigmatization of mental illness encourages open communication practices amongst loved ones, which can help mitigate the symptoms of your loved one's stress.

Set Realistic Boundaries

Of course, the best way to manage your loved one’s anxiety is to maintain a steady source of optimism and support. But to avoid taking on another’s stress, it’s important to set realistic boundaries in your relationship that offer you time, space and individuality where you are not obligated to cope with their feelings. Remember that you are not your loved one’s therapist and encourage them to seek professional help if they need it. Likewise, there are a number of support groups available for the loved ones of people with high anxiety, which may be a good option if someone else’s mental illness is interfering with your daily life.

Anxiety manifests in the people of all ages and backgrounds, so most people are familiar with what it’s like to love someone who experiences routine stress. Recognizing the role anxiety plays in your loved one’s life can help you to cope with their illness without taking on the burden of another person's mental health.

Jess Walter

Jess Walter is a freelance writer and mother. She loves the freedom that comes with freelance life and the additional time it means she gets to spend with her family and pets.

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