I am fortunate to be loved by a wide range of personalities, dispositions, and people. Many of which can only relate to feelings of anxiety in the realm of the hypothetical.
I don’t understand ya, but I’m here for you!
Because of my own experience with anxiety, I’ve been asked how to minister to someone who has anxiety when you don’t have it yourself—how would I want to be ministered to? Parents have asked me for the sake of their kids, friends for their friends, and teachers for their students. I’ve dragged my feet on this one because anxiety is so different for each and every person. But I can certainly share things that help immensely (and a few that don’t).
The fact that these parents, friends, and teachers asked me what to do shows me that they’re already on the right track. Desiring to help someone and not automatically assuming you know how to is the best place to be in. People with anxiety (and honestly, most mental health issues) often assume that they are an intolerable burden on those around them (especially those that love them the most). They may want to share what’s on their heart and mind, but they don’t have the courage to broach the subject. It’s helpful when someone else asks because (a) it proves they care and (b) it gives the other an opportunity to share.
The husband (Lord bless him) knows that even when my body language is screaming that I am not okay, I still need him to ask, “What’s wrong, babe? Are you okay?” That small question, said with sincere kindness and care, can make all the difference in the world.
Here are some questions that I’ve found helpful:
“How are things going with X?”
“Is there anything you want to talk through together? I’m happy to listen.”
“What is that like?”
“What kinds of things are scaring you right now?”
“How can I pray for you right now?”
“Do you mind if I check on you in a few hours, tomorrow, next week?”
“Can I bring you anything?”
“Do you want to talk? Hangout? Be left alone?”
Remember that there is a difference between questions and interrogation: the first is thoughtful, goes at the pace that both people are clearly comfortable with, has a flow of conversation, and has no ulterior motive. The second is overwhelming, one-sided, rude, and has the objective of information instead of someone’s well-being.
Listen & Affirm, But Don’t Interrupt
When you ask questions, or sometimes of their own volition, your loved one may choose to share pieces of their heart with you. It may be tempting to jump in and ask clarifying questions, ask “Why would you even worry about that? Who cares?”, or comment on how nobody is even thinking about them, so don’t pay them any mind. This might sound helpful, but…it’s not.
Let them speak. Let them pause and then speak again. Chances are that they know many of their fears are irrational, and that’s probably a reason it’s hard to share them with someone. “That’s irrational” just sounds like “you’re irrational,” though, so it’s not that helpful. Let them say their piece.
When they’re done, affirm that you heard them and support them. Here are some examples:
“So you’re saying that you’re really worried about failing this test because that would result in failing the class. This makes you worried because you don’t want to disappoint your parents. That makes sense, and I’m sorry you’re feeling overwhelmed about this.”
“You’re saying you’re worried that your husband might suddenly die and leave you all alone. And you feel bad about that because you want to have more faith, so it leads to you feeling spiritually guilty. That’s a lot to walk through, I’m sorry you’re feeling this way.”
People with anxiety feel like they’re crazy sometimes — so many rushing thoughts to keep track of. Having someone to talk through, organize, and affirm your thoughts is incredibly helpful.
Help Them in the Way They Ask — Not the Way You Want
Sometimes people need solitude and chill music. Sometimes they need some exercise. Sometimes they need sleep. Sometimes they need a distraction—going out to the mall, a movie, or just something completely unrelated to what’s making them anxious. Sometimes they need to talk it out. Sometimes they don’t even know what they want!
But when they ask for something, do that for them. If you have another idea, you can bring it up to them and ask, but don’t assume that your idea is going to “cure” them. Nothing worse than forcing an activity on someone who already feels like parts of their life are spinning out of control.
What helps me the most is when someone listens to me, gets all of the pieces, and then firmly, but kindly, pushes back and tells me why my anxious thoughts are wrong. This isn’t what’s needed for most people, but I just need a lot of truth correction when I’m spiraling. But other times I just need a hug or someone to tell me I’m smart enough or that Jesus doesn’t view me the way my emotions tell me He does or that they love me.
This is a difficult spot though because so many people don’t actually know what will help. It requires patience on your part, dear loved one, to allow them to figure it out and go through the frustrations of choosing the wrong thing along the way. It took me a long time to know what helps me and what makes me worse. It feels like an unsolvable puzzle sometimes. But slowly, with support and patience and understanding and compassion, you can help them find the things that help and avoid the things that don’t.
Don’t Treat Them Like They Have Leprosy
You want to minister to your loved one, ask the questions, have the conversation—but please, oh please, do not treat them like a freak. Anxiety is not contagious, they still care about you and want to know about you, too, and they still like that hobby that you two bonded over awhile back. Having anxiety is merely a part of who they are. True, it can color everything in hues of grey sometimes, but they’re still your person.
I know you already do because you’re reading this. Just keep doing so. Tell them you love them, show it in all of their love languages, and remind them that you don’t think less of them because of their mental health struggles, and that you’re not pushed away by it. For me, these words are like symbolic hooks that I can hang my hopes on. Yeah anxiety is telling me everybody hates me, but he told me he loved me 20 minutes ago, so I’m going to choose to trust him instead. Screw you, anxiety.
My prayer is that this leads to healing conversations that show you are a safe person for your loved one. Keep praying for them, keep loving them, keep treating them like a real person. Go forth and love well, loved one.