Among many of my friends, there's W. We've known each other for 8 years and it's safe to say we're BFFs for life. Our friendship is pretty standard - we like to watch shitty TV shows together, we text each other random GIFs we've found online, we're both obsessed with YouTube. The only thing that makes this relationship unique is the fact W has really bad anxiety.
And although being friends with someone with anxiety was and still is one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, it wasn’t an easy ride to start with. It turned out I had a lot of learning to do, and if I wanted to remain being friends with this amazing human being, I’d have to do a lot of (home)work.
Here’s what I’ve learned about being BFFs with someone who has anxiety.
1 Don’t mention it
Early on, I learned that the worst thing you can do is shift attention to the fact your friend has anxiety. Imagine me saying to you, presumably a non-anxious person, “Remember this embarrassing thing that happened 5 years ago?” You instantly recall a particular event that made you feel embarrassed in the past and suddenly all the negative emotions come flooding back in.
Checking in with your constantly-worried friend he or she is ok, but don’t do it too often. Once a week, maybe even less than that, is fine. They will appreciate the concern.
But under no circumstances should you ask how they’re doing every twenty minutes. Trust me, they are very aware of their anxiety and are trying really hard to forget about it. They don’t need another constant reminder.
2 Don’t expect to understand their fears and worries
Anxiety is often not a cause and effect system. Sometimes things happen 'just because'. It is possible for a person with anxiety to walk into an empty room and start feeling extremely uncomfortable for no reason. That’s life.
Other times, an explanation for exactly why they feel worried is likely only to make sense in their own heads, and not when put into words. That’s ok. It’s not your place to make sense of it all. Just be around, ready to step in when they ask for your help or a sympathetic ear.
3 Get ready to hear 'no' a lot
A lot of everyday situations can be triggering for people with anxiety. Calling someone. Talking to a shop clerk. Even the most simple things like leaving the house, cooking, watching telly, cleaning - they can all cause an anxiety attack.
When your friend doesn’t want to do something because it’s a triggering experience for them, you just have to let it go. Don’t get mad at them. It’s on you to learn how to compromise. And yes, sometimes you will miss out on perfectly enjoyable parties, roller coaster rides, or unusual culinary experiences at that new restaurant downtown, but that’s ok.
After all, it wouldn’t be fun if one of you would be miserable throughout the whole experience anyway.
4 That being said, don't stop inviting them to do stuff with you
Even if you know they’ll probably say 'no' to something you’re planing on doing, it is important for you to ask them to join in anyway.
One of my friends never went out to pubs, clubs, or other venues where they’d serve alcohol. It was a case of people being drunk, loud music, unknown territory, having to make small talk that scared him.
One day, when he finally decided he’s ready, instead of a 'no' I got a 'yes'. To this day, it was one of the best nights out we’ve ever had.
All you need to do is just let them know the possibility is out there when the time comes.
5 Be their biggest fan
One thing anxiety is really good at, on top of making you constantly worried about stuff, is making you doubt yourself, big time.
That’s why it’s super important to praise your anxious BFF. Point out positives for them to see in every uncomfortable situations they encounter. Recognise their achievements, even if they’re small and not all that significant in a greater sense of things. It will build up their confidence and with better confidence they’ll have less time to dwell about their self-worth or (imagined) lack thereof.
6 Don’t push them to do things
If they don’t want to do something, then don’t make them do it. Simple as that. Don’t sit them down and force them to talk to you about their anxiety. They will talk to you when they feel ready.
If you see something’s wrong, signal to them that if they need to talk, you’re available. Pretty much 90% of the time, I’d be met with 'not now' as a response. A couple of weeks later, I’d get a full summary of what was wrong and what both of us could have done to to make things better.
7 But at the same time, push them to do stuff
Be welcoming and respect their 'no's, but make sure to keep on pushing them to get out of their comfort zone. And by that I don’t mean dropping them into the deep end and letting them figure it out. It’s all about baby steps. Tiny little nudges more than pushes, actually.
You can do it in numerous ways. It could be by talking about your own experiences in detail to show them certain situations are not as scary as they might think they are. Or by giving them an option to go and do something with you but letting them know they can leave earlier if they want in case it gets too much for them. Simples.
8 How do I know when is the right time to give them that little nudge?
Learn to read their behaviour. Observe what they do when they start getting more anxious.
Often, it's a physical reaction. Maybe they get all tense. Perhaps they start looking around and become very fidgety. It could be that they 'shrink' to appear less visible to others.
When you become fluent in recognising the signals your friend is sending you, you’ll be able to act accordingly. If you decide to push for something but get a negative reaction, retreat. If everything seems to be ok, go on.
Also, constantly be on a lookout. Anxiety shape-shifts into many forms as time goes by.
9 It's OK to feel frustrated with them sometimes, BUT
Will your anxious friend be annoying sometimes? Of course. There will be moments when you’ll be tired of constantly having to watch what you say, what you do, and how you act.
BUT remember they are even more tired of being anxious and scared of things all the time because they live through it, non-stop, 24/7. So try to get off your high horse and contain your anger. Take a couple of days off. Breathe. It’s not about you, it’s about them.
10 Remember how much they appreciate you
In those moments of anger and annoyance, it’s best to remember one thing - you have no idea how much they appreciate your friendship and company.
It's likely they won't ever say this to your face. It’s possible anxiety makes them believe they will make a fool of themselves by saying how they feel about you out loud and that you will run away.
But you are important to them. They care about you. They would probably be way worse off without you. You are having a real impact on their life. Is that something to get angry about? Of course not.
11 Never forget how fun they are to be around
All in all, despite a slightly peculiar form of friendship, your anxious friend is super fun to be around. They are hilarious, smart, and pretty damn awesome. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be friends now, would you?
Plus, you can get just as much out of this friendship as they do by hanging out with you: support, empathy, a sympathetic ear to listen. It’s a friendship that goes beyond drinking pints and going to festivals together. It’s a friendship for good and for worse. It’s a friendship for life.