Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Interpersonal Relationships with Very Anxious People: A How To

Chances are that you will have to deal with an anxious person in your life sooner or later. It's a common mental illness that many deal with, whether you realise it or not. Those with generalised and/or social anxiety often have trouble with interpersonal interactions and can find them overwhelming. Worrying thoughts are constantly bombarding them and there's nothing they can do to make them stop. Even with a therapist's help, they often simply learn to ignore the worst of those thoughts so that they can handle situations better. They often can unintentionally be difficult to deal with; needing reassurance, lacking in confidence, and/or feeling like a burden to those around them. With a bit of patience and understanding, you can help them cope with something that is both difficult and out of their control, and hopefully build up some of their confidence in interpersonal relationship situations, as well.

These are a few rules to help interact with them in ways that ease their already high-level of stress in social situations, rather than add to it accidentally. It also can help avoid draining reassurance cycles that can become common between a person with anxiety and someone trying to have a friend/relationship with them.

1) If they ask you to be honest, be honest, whether it is good or bad.

Anxious people have a tendency to second-guess, mind read, assume worst-case scenario, or otherwise become overwhelmed and confused if they don't have a clear grasp of the situation. These thoughts are constant and often will weigh them down, whether they show it or not. Upfront, clear communication is the best policy in any interpersonal situation, but this is especially true if you are interacting with someone with generalised and/or social anxiety. If you are reluctant to say something because you're worried about a bad reaction, well, the anxious person has probably already thought of the worst thing you could say in any given situation; the likelihood is that whatever you say, even if it is negative, will still be a relief to them, because a) they can stop worrying and b) it's almost never as bad as they think.

2) If they ask for any clarification or reassurance, give it to them and be as straightforward as possible.

If they are asking repeatedly, to your annoyance, then they are obviously unclear or uncertain about something in the relationship. In this situation, try to get to the bottom of the true worry. Ask why they need reassurance about your feelings, because likely there is something specific bothering them but they're afraid to ask.

3) Reassure them they can ask you about anything bothering them with no judgement attached.

If you find that they are reluctant to ask you openly about their worries, try to help build their confidence that they can have an open and honest dialogue with you. If you're open and honest with them, as you should be, they will probably begin to trust you much more quickly, anyway. However, they may still need a bit of reassurance that needing clarification about something that is bothering them, no matter how irrational it may seem to you, the person outside their mind, is totally okay. It's better for both of you in the long run to address things and ease the anxious person's mind, as once they understand things better, they will often calm down fairly quickly.

4) If you feel you need to set boundaries, be extremely clear about what they are and why they need to be in place.

Sometimes dealing with a highly anxious person can be tiring and difficult for the other person involved, and in no way should they be bending over backwards to the extent that they find it draining for their own health. Clear and healthy boundaries should be a part of any strong interpersonal relationship, whether you are dealing with someone with a mental illness or not. As long as you are completely upfront and honest about where you need boundaries to exist and why, then the anxious person should be able to abide by them without panicking or letting their worries overwhelm them. Let them ask any questions necessary to get them in a place they understand everything and are comfortable with it.

5) In the event something goes wrong, conflict arises, or the anxious person doesn't respect your boundaries, always default to open, honest and clear communication.

This can be especially difficult if and when high emotions are involved, but if you're able to, it's still in both of your best interest to be as upfront and clear as possible in these situations. If you feel that you cannot discuss something further at that moment because you're too angry or upset, just say so and promise you will talk things over later after both parties are calmer. If you feel that space is needed, same thing. But be as clear as you can about what you need and why. Default to at least stating the situation and the minimal amount of explanation you feel is necessary for both of you to be on the same page about everything. Non-communication will likely put the anxious person's brain into overdrive, causing panic and worry and possibly heightening their anxiety to levels that are out of their ability to control. This will only lead to more misunderstandings and the situation deteriorating even further, as opposed to finding a resolution.

6) Hold them accountable for their actions, while avoiding placing blame on them or their illness.

Depending on their level of treatment and experience with interpersonal interactions, it's likely they have a lot to learn about managing their illness while successfully navigating relationships with others. It's easy to want to place blame if they end up hurting or upsetting you, but you're likely to start their overactive mind down a path of guilt and berating themselves for their mistakes. So, while you shouldn't let it slide if they do upset you in some way, try to talk things out calmly, after a period of space if necessary, and help them understand why what they did was problematic and how it affected you. They will never learn if they aren't held accountable for their behaviours, but at the same time, you should try to avoid letting them get into a negative headspace about the conflict if at all possible. The more irrational they are, the less likely they will truly learn from their mistakes in the first place.

The bottom line is that these are useful habits to build for any interpersonal relationship, but they are doubly important if the person you are dealing with suffers from anxiety. If there is any level of confusion or statements left too open to interpretation, the anxious mind will grab onto those and worry and nitpick and likely become bogged down by their overwhelming thoughts. This will likely put them into a place that makes it harder for you to want to interact with them and harder for them to ever learn better skills for interacting with others.

Another important disclaimer is that if you suspect someone of having highly anxious thoughts and behaviour, but they aren't being treated for it, encourage them to see a professional as soon as possible. Friends and partners can only do so much for those with mental illness, and they need a psychologist or psychiatrist trained in therapy to truly start them on their road to recovery.

Any additions? Comments? Constructive criticisms? I'd love to hear what you think, from both sides of the equation.

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