A Better Way to Help Someone with Anxiety
This post is mainly geared not to others with anxiety, but to any allies who may be reading to better understand how to help someone with an anxiety disorder.
Full disclosure: what I’m writing about is based purely on my own experiences, and I do not know if any of what I say has been validated by scientific studies. Regardless, I would not write this if I did not sincerely believe it would have a wider resonance in the anxiety and mental health communities at large.
A New Way to Look at Helping Someone with Anxiety
The Bias of Neurotypical Normativity
I wish to coin a term to better describe a problem that I feel can impede the treatment of the mentally ill: The bias of neurotypical normativity. Technical as it may sound, it’s actually simple to understand: basically, it suggests that behaviors associated with neurotypical people (that is, people who don’t have a mental illness or a developmental disability) are seen as desirable, and as such, should be emulated.
As I said, this bias can actually get in the way of any sort of effective treatment for someone who actually has a mental illness. We’ll use anxiety as our example, of course. You’re a neurotypical person, and a friend with anxiety comes to you for help or advice. What’s the first thing you do? The natural response would be to think about what works for you and see if the anxious person can replicate that in their own life.
The Problem of the Bias of Neurotypical Normativity
I don’t think negatively of those who fall into the bias of neurotypical normativity, because it makes a lot of sense. If someone doesn’t have problems with anxiety, why shouldn’t his or her behaviors be replicated to help someone with anxiety? It seems it would be the easiest way to help.
What must be remembered, however, is anxiety, like any other mental illness, literally impacts the structure and functioning of the brain. That logic may make perfect sense in a neurotypical person, but it cannot be assumed it will carry over to someone with anxiety.
So what does this mean in terms of helping someone with anxiety and his or her treatment? How do we know what will be most effective?
In the most basic sense, we can’t and shouldn’t assume. Anxiety can be very individualized, both in terms of what triggers it and what may be effective in treating it. A more individualized philosophy towards anxiety treatment may be more complicated and take more time, but it is ultimately more compassionate.
Without getting to the heart of someone’s individual anxiety, treatment can’t be as effective. And assuming that replicating the same behaviors neurotypical people use will be effective robs people with anxiety of their agency. It is entirely possible that what they may need falls outside the neuronormative mold, and everyone needs to be okay with that.
What do you think of my thoughts on helping people with anxiety? Share your comments below.
DeSalvo, T. (2020, May 27). A Better Way to Help Someone with Anxiety, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2022, August 8 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/anxiety-schmanxiety/2020/5/a-better-way-to-help-someone-with-anxiety
Author: TJ DeSalvo
I get what you're saying, and agree. There are many things I can't do because my brain works differently and/or I'm triggered. I've tried and tried but don't even understand what it is they're doing or talking about, I just try to copy what it looks like. (Not necessarily helpful.) I was shamed endlessly by my family, and learned to shame to myself. Then there's the stigma of 'mental illness', and even people paid to help haven't a clue (with my condition, anyway, because it was continually misdiagnosed). I'm 67 and got the correct diagnosis long after the MH system gave up on me, and have only in the last year obtained knowledgeable, skilled help (privately). The restoration process is arduous, and I've a long way to go....... I have found that, in the absence of skilled help, ordinary kindness and patience have been the most helpful things to help me get by. Without them, I doubt I'd even be alive today.
I'm glad you found this helpful, and likewise that you found something to help you.
I fundamentally disagree with you on your argument. If the goal for someone with anxiety is to not have anxiety, why shouldn’t someone try to help them? If somebody is in a situation like this, it does not help in the slightest to try to focus on what ails them because it sets up a negative feedback loop that spirals worse and worse. On the contrary, if that same person were to see things that their friends do that limit any anxieties, it opens up a new light to help. As you said, “a more individualized philosophy... is ultimately more compassionate.” What can be more individualized than a friend’s help? While you might question my ethos, let me tell you a story about myself. I used to deal with social anxiety to the point I didn’t even want to be in a room with new people. When some of my friends just sat with me and let me sit in my own anxious world, it only made it worse. As it continued, I started to grow apart from those friends and distanced myself more. I had one friend, however, that realized the extent of what I was dealing with. She dragged me into new situations with people she trusted and taught me ways to talk to new people. It took a lot of time and some adjustments, but her guidance eventually saved me from my downward spiral.
Let’s take a hypothetical. Let’s say Tim, for example, is dealing with suicidal thoughts and I know about it. If I’m Tim’s friend should I just leave him alone and not talk to about it because I’ve never had suicidal thoughts? Obviously not, it would be absurd and inhumane to suggest otherwise. The best course of action would be to spend time with Tim and show him people care for him and find things that he still likes to do. You do not need to have directly experienced something yourself to be able to help someone, all you need to do is be compassionate, willing to learn with them, and help with examples from your life at the same time.
One more thing, the term neurotypical refers to only learning and cognitive disabilities, not other mental illnesses in the DSM5 (Chapman, Psychologytoday).
I think you're somewhat misunderstanding what I was trying to get at. Obviously, I think people should help others in need, especially if they're friends or family. What I take issue with is someone who would blindly assume they have an ideal solution without thinking about whether the person they're trying to help would benefit from that solution. To bring in a personal example - several years ago I was having a major anxiety episode. I was in another country at the time and so had a much weaker support network, which made things worse. Someone in my extended family who I am very close to said I should try praying. I don't mean to mock their religiosity, but I'm not religious at all, and that sort of advice isn't going to do anything to help. I hate admitting this but I would've rather heard no advice at all than hear that advice. Similar things have happened with other people, including some mental health professionals. I don't want anybody else to feel like how I felt during those times.
Because you are writing this now, I’m assuming that you were able to get out of that episode. As you said, the episode was much worse because you had less support. While it may seem like praying didn’t do anything to help, subconsciously it made you know that there are ways out of the episode. While praying may not have been the way to pull you out, the family member’s willingness to give you ideas likely opened a route and gave you the ability to find a way out. It seems asinine to assume that you would’ve been better off with no advice at all, because with anxiety episodes, hopelessness spirals when you don’t see any personal support from friends or family.