How to Talk About Anxiety

Tips to help you discuss your anxiety with family and friends
talking about anxiety

"Oh, you know me, I just worry so much."

"I was so worried, I couldn't sleep."

"I can't stop thinking about what might happen if something goes wrong."

If any of these statements sound like something you say often, you might be experiencing generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD.

"Stress and anxiety are part of everyone's life," says Jeanette Lee, LCSW, a Rush social worker. "But if you feel worried most of the time and your worrying thoughts get in the way of enjoying things, your anxiety has likely become a problem."

And you’re not alone: According to a Harvard study, about 6% of U.S. adults experience GAD at some time in their lives, and it's more prevalent in women than men.

Symptoms of anxiety

Besides feeling worried, symptoms of anxiety include the following:

  • Trouble relaxing, concentrating or sleeping
  • Being irritable or easily startled
  • Feelings of panic, danger or dread
  • Increased or heavy sweating
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Trembling or muscle twitching
  • Lightheadedness
  • Feeling out of breath
  • Making frequent trips to the bathroom

Talking about feelings or symptoms of anxiety with your doctor is the first step to getting help — and talking about it with family and friends can help them understand how to support you.

It can be hard to begin the conversation, but Lee offers a few strategies.

Talking about your anxiety can normalize it so friends and family understand where you're coming from.

Don't be afraid to admit you might have anxiety.

"Just naming what you're feeling can be helpful in the way you think about it," Lee says. "It's not something that's wrong with you, or a problem you have to solve alone. It's something that's making your body respond in a particular way."

Your doctor is used to talking with people who have anxiety, and will work with you on the best way to find relief. Many people benefit from talk therapy, medication or a combination of both.

Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, has been shown to be very effective in treating GAD. A therapist who uses CBT can help you become aware of thought patterns that are inaccurate and harmful — for example, always assuming that the worst-case scenario will happen. CBT techniques help you identify these thoughts, understand how they affect you and find ways to change the pattern.

Know your audience.

Talking about your anxiety can normalize it so friends and family understand where you're coming from. It can also help them avoid doing things or creating situations that may trigger your anxiety. 

For instance, if you tell your loved ones that you experience panic attacks during large social gatherings, they won't be upset or take it personally if you don't join them at the big New Year's party.  

But if you're talking to someone who might be put off by the word "anxiety," Lee says, "it's totally OK not to use the word. Maybe you simply say, 'I've been worrying a lot lately.' "

It can help to plan out what you want to say; you can even write it down.

Ask for what you need.

Be specific about how friends and family can help you: Do you need someone to listen? To come to a doctor's appointment with you? To help you notice anxious behaviors? 

Sometimes it helps to ask for a hug. "Physical touch is often overlooked, but it can really help diminish anxiety to get a hug, or just to sit and hold hands," says Lee.

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