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How to explain anxiety to someone

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, 7 min read

How to explain anxiety to someone

Being diagnosed with anxiety can be very confusing. On one hand, at least now you have a better understanding of why you’ve been struggling and have a treatment plan in place to try and improve your mental health. But, on the other hand, you suddenly have to tell your loved ones that you have an anxiety disorder. As if you didn’t already have enough on your plate by simply living with anxiety, you now have to figure out how to explain anxiety to someone who doesn’t have it.

But how do you describe anxiety to someone? Is there an easy way to explain anxiety to someone who may not understand it in the way you do? 

There’s no quick and easy answer to this but there are definitely things you can do to help make the situation easier for yourself as well as the person you are trying to explain it to. So let’s take a look at some top tips on how to explain anxiety to a loved one.

Make sure you understand your anxiety

This may sound obvious, but before you can explain your anxiety to someone else, you first need to understand what it is yourself. 

You’ve probably been living with the condition for a while and therefore have a pretty good idea of how you feel day to day, but in order to get a deeper understanding of why you feel the way you do, you need to understand what type of anxiety you have.

Different types of anxiety

Anxiety comes in many different forms. Everyone deals with a certain level of anxiety every now and again but for some people, it can seriously affect their daily life. Those suffering from an anxiety disorder will experience persistent anxiety which can have a significant impact on several aspects of their life.

Examples of anxiety disorders include:1

  • Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)
  • Panic disorder
  • Phobias
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

All anxiety disorders sit on a spectrum and no two people experience exactly the same thing. Getting to grips with your anxiety as well as how it impacts your life is the first step to being able to explain your anxiety to a loved one.

Explain the physical symptoms

The symptoms of anxiety can range from anxious thoughts to general fatigue, even panic attacks that can feel more like a heart attack. By alerting someone to the huge array of symptoms that can accompany an anxiety disorder, you’ll give them a better understanding of just how debilitating the condition can be.

Not all those who suffer from anxiety disorder will experience all of the symptoms associated with it but there is a list of symptoms broadly associated with anxiety disorders. Common symptoms of anxiety include:2

  • Restlessness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Experiencing feelings of dread and fear
  • Irritability 
  • Physical symptoms, like fatigue, stomach aches or muscle tension 

Common symptoms of an anxiety attack or panic attack include:3

  • Palpitations or pain in your chest
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Breathing difficulties 
  • Tingling in your fingers, toes or lips
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness 

Give examples of the anxiety symptoms you deal with

Like we’ve already discussed, no two experiences of anxiety are the same. The symptoms you have and the way anxiety feels for you may be completely different to the symptoms another person encounters. It’s therefore important to take time to explain your specific anxiety symptoms to your loved one.

Use colourful imagery

Try to explain your anxiety symptoms in ways your loved ones might be able to relate to. 

For example, saying “it feels like I am breathing through a whistle” may help them to understand the physical symptoms that you feel.

Ask them what makes them scared, anxious or overwhelmed

It’s hard to relate to something that simply doesn’t factor into your day-to-day life. Encourage your loved ones to think about anxiety differently by asking them about their biggest fears or worries. By comparing your anxiety to specific situations that have caused them distress in the past, you can give them a better understanding of the pressures and emotions you have to deal with every day.

Don’t be afraid to highlight how often these symptoms occur. Your loved ones might be able to relate to feeling scared about going to the dentist for a few hours but when you explain that you carry around that feeling of dread all the time, they may start to understand your anxiety a little better.

Tell them what situations are stressful for you

Those who don’t suffer from severe anxiety are probably blissfully unaware of the racing thoughts, headaches or sweating you might experience. What you know to be extremely stressful situations may be completely mundane for someone who doesn’t have an anxiety disorder. Giving them a heads-up about things that might trigger your anxiety may help them support you better

For example, if going to the grocery store or arriving at a party alone triggers your anxiety symptoms, you need to spell this out to them. This will not only give them an insight into the true impact anxiety is having on your daily life but it will also give them a chance to offer you support.

Tell them what helps you

Although there are several types of therapies, treatments and medication available to help control anxiety, the methods that work for you will be different from what works for someone else.

By living with anxiety, you’ve probably figured out what kinds of situations stress you out as well as what kinds of things help you to manage your anxiety. In order for your loved ones to be able to understand your anxiety as well as help you to manage it, you need to tell them what works for you.

If self-care practices such as a regular bedtime routine, prioritising your physical health, and eating healthily (i.e., avoiding stimulants such as coffee later in the day) is having a positive impact on your well-being, make sure your loved ones know about it. If medication or regular therapy is working for you, then tell them. That way, they can help make sure that you stick to a lifestyle, routine and treatment plan that works for you.

Ask for their input

Trying to be there for someone when you can’t truly understand what they are going through is hard. Your loved ones might be desperate to help you but they just won’t know how. Asking for their input will make them feel included.

This isn’t just a token gesture — it’s also a great way to get some insight into what triggers and helps you. While it’s true that nobody understands your anxiety better than you do, your friends and family may have noticed things that you simply haven’t. They may be able to help you identify triggers or find new methods to manage your anxiety. 

By asking for their input, you will no longer be dealing with your anxiety alone. You’ll be a team.

Be patient

This one’s very easy to say… not so easy to do.

What you need to remember in this situation is that just because something is obvious to you, it isn’t necessarily obvious to someone else. We’re all different. Someone who doesn’t suffer from anxiety may be completely oblivious to a lot of things that completely consume you, and that’s OK.

It may take them a little while to understand how anxiety affects you. In fact, they may never completely understand it. Try to be patient with them and explain things as much as you can.

Direct them to credible sources

We can tell you all about the benefits of opening up to a loved one but the truth is, sometimes it can be difficult to talk about mental health. If you are finding this, a good alternative can be sharing an article or website which you feel describes your symptoms well. You could even share this blog with them! 

The internet is full of all sorts of advice but not all of it is helpful or even medically accurate. So, when it comes to informing your friends and family about anxiety or any other mental illness, make sure you direct them to credible online resources such as the NHS website. 

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  1. Signs of an anxiety disorder, NHS, published January 2022 
  2. Symptoms - Generalised anxiety disorder in adults, NHS, published October 2022
  3. Anxiety, fear and panic, NHS, published October 2019 

The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of a doctor with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never delay seeking or disregard professional medical advice because of something you have read here.

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