What An Anxious Person Needs From A Friend

The other day, I got hit by anxiety. I hadn’t seen my therapist for two weeks and negative thoughts started to creep in at unexpected hours. An otherwise normal day turned into a dark pit of self-doubt and self-loathing. Even when I was at the gym, which was supposed to be my most positive zone, I looked at myself in the mirror and something felt off. I rushed home, hiding under the blanket. But the blanket couldn’t protect me against my own intrusive thoughts. All my past wounds seemed to get wide open again, slowly swallowing me up. I heard, “You’re worthless, no one loves you, you’re going to be alone forever; look at you, of course bad things happened to you, you deserved it.” I didn’t just “hear” these things, though. These were my own thoughts. I, not anyone else, was saying these things to myself in my head, non-stop. I bawled my eyes out while curling up like a helpless child — well, like the helpless child I had once been.  

After therapy and intensive self-work, however, part of me was aware that these thoughts were not true. They were irrational. They were dysfunctional. They were not my reality, at least not anymore. It was almost like an out of body experience whereby parts of myself were fighting with each other and I was a bewildered spectator to this mean battle. My thoughts were mine but no longer mine. They had a life of their own and they took over me the moment external conditions allowed or as soon as a flash of past trauma was enacted. The pity party was no longer fun. I felt trapped. I had to find a way to release the demon inside me and let it speak. 

I wrote my therapist an email. But it was late at night. There wasn’t a reply. So I messaged a long-time, trusted friend who had witnessed my anxiety and kindly helped me in my darkest hours before, hoping he was still awake. Luckily, he got back to me. I told him my anxiety had been attacking me. I told him about my recent nightmares. I told him vulnerability scared me shitless. I kept typing and typing while sinking further into my mattress. He asked if I had talked to my therapist about this. I told him no. I went on to word-vomit many depressing, complex things mentioning my relationship with my parents and death. He asked me again if I had shared these thoughts with my therapist. I felt slightly offended. I needed my friend then, not a therapist. I took it as my friend didn’t want to talk to me and pushed me away. I almost shut myself down. But then the more mature, conscious side of me recognised that he did have a point. What I was letting out was definitely too much for a friend to handle. He wasn’t trained to give advice on those seriously heavy thoughts. They were the things I should be bringing up with my therapist.

The thing is, I couldn’t then. I don’t have my therapist 24/7. I need to also rely on my personal support system including my friends or family. There will be times an anxious person does not have access to professional help and they need support from someone close to them who might not be trained to give mental health advice. It makes me wonder about the role of friends or family when mental health is concerned. What does an anxious person needs? What exactly did I need then when I came to my friend? 

I realised that I didn’t need my friend’s advice. I didn’t need him to act like a therapist. I actually knew what to do. But it wasn’t the point. The point is, it’s hard to battle mental illness alone. When anxiety suddenly hits me full force, when I feel like I couldn’t go one anymore, I might not always say it out loud or reach out to anyone but I do appreciate having someone there with me. It helps to have a friend to sit with me through an overwhelming wave of anxiety. It helps to have a friend’s presence and I need not much else from them.   

My friends don’t have to give me advice. They just need to listen.   

I’ve heard people say “I’ll be there for you”. Now I know what that really means and why that is so important. Being there for someone means literally that. Sit with them, give them your undivided attention, listen to them, hold them by your full presence. You don’t have to understand all that they’re going through, you don’t have to know how to respond when they let out their anxious feelings and thoughts. You just need to be there with them and for them.     

Mental Illness is hard. But no one should struggle alone. If you’re experiencing mental illness, allow yourself to seek help, whether it’s from a professional or someone you know. And if someone comes to you amidst their hopeless moments, well, sit with them.   

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