When you lack effective tools, it can be very painful to live with anxiety, depression or bipolarity. This can also be true for you, as a loved one who may be suffering from watching someone you care about suffer.
Whether you’re a family member, spouse, friend or co-worker, you probably often hear about how important your support is. And this is true. Studies have shown that people with proper support—and who are aware of the value of this support—are less likely to develop mental health problems than people who lack social support.
However, this caregiver role can also be a heavy burden to bear, causing you to feel helpless, overwhelmed, stressed out, depressed and angry. You may be subjected to a whole range of emotions.
To help you cope, we are offering a new service specially designed to help people like you, which we’ll be introducing at the end of this post. But first, we thought we would share three tips to help your loved one.
1 - communication is key
Anxiety, depression and bipolarity all affect interpersonal relationships. Someone living with social anxiety, for example, will tend to avoid social situations out of a fear of being judged, ridiculed or humiliated, which can lead to isolation.
In turn, this can make communication harder or even non-existent. Here are some practical tips for communicating effectively with your loved one.
- Learn about the disorder. Read posts on the topic, listen to podcasts and join support groups. This will not only give you greater confidence in approaching your loved one, but maximize your chances of understanding what they are going through.
- Be empathetic. Try to put yourself in their shoes and understand how they’re feeling. This might seem easy, but we tend to relate everything to our own experiences. Focus more on “This can’t be easy for you” as opposed to “I’ve been through something similar.” The goal is to concentrate on what your loved one is confiding to you. And the best way to do so is to listen.
- Actively listen to your loved one. Take a genuine interest in what your loved one is going through. Ask questions, while making sure he or she is comfortable discussing them. Be sure you understand what your loved one is communicating to you by double-checking your interpretation. For example, if a loved one tells you, “I can’t stand my job anymore. My boss is on my back and the deadlines are unrealistic,” you can validate this by answering, “You seem overwhelmed and exhausted by your job.” This being said, listening doesn’t mean you aren’t entitled to express yourself. Healthy communication is always a two-way street.
- Use “I” statements. The classic advice to focus on “I” rather than “you” statements still applies... because it works! Using “I” statements prevents you from being perceived as expressing judgments, blame, and orders. Instead of saying “You never go out. Seeing other people would do you some good!” you could say, “I’ve noticed that you seem to be isolating yourself, and I’m concerned.” In short, it’s best to avoid blaming, lecturing, and imposing solutions.
- Acknowledge their progress. Sincerely and authentically acknowledge your loved one’s successes—however small. Keep in mind that what might seem like a small deal to you can be a huge challenge for your loved one.
- Choose the right time and place. Context matters. Avoid “intense” discussions when your loved one is tired, busy, conflicted, or in crisis. If your loved one refuses to open up to you, be patient and try again later.
2 - empower your loved one, i.e., know how to help rather than harm
Helping a loved one living with anxiety, depression or bipolarity does NOT mean you are responsible for their recovery. Supporting is not the same as taking charge of someone.
When you try to “save” your loved one, you might be helping to reduce their symptoms in the short term... but interfering with their longer-term recovery.
It’s best to draw some boundaries in your support. Not only will you avoid losing yourself in the process (our third and final tip), you will also help develop accountability in your loved one.
- Make sure your support is appropriate. Let’s take the example of someone living with agoraphobia. If they ask you to do their grocery shopping for them, try to understand why, and the connection between your support and their anxiety. Are they asking for your help because they don’t have the time to go shopping (lack of adequate support) or out of anxiety about visiting a big store (avoidance)?
- Distinguish between chronic and one-off assistance. Does your loved one always ask for help or is it a one-time occurrence? Is the need directly associated with a difficult event (bereavement, separation, etc.) or is it ongoing? Are you the only person your loved one turns to for help, and if so, why? If your help is chronic, you may need to cut back on the support you provide to your loved one and refer them to mental health professionals or organizations.
- Be consistent. Your loved one may react negatively to your attempts to make them responsible for their recovery process. Don’t give in—be consistent. Avoid falling into the old dynamic where you take everything on your shoulders. Your efforts will pay off in the long run.
3 - check in with yourself so you can help your loved one without losing yourself in the process
Family members of people living with anxiety, depression or bipolarity experience three times greater emotional intensity than the general population and are at greater risk of burnout.
Setting limits is essential. Thankfully, it just so happens that we have another post on that topic as well.
Because you, too, have your own limits. As a matter of fact, you are entitled to them.
You have the right to be exhausted.
You have the right to live your life apart from the person you support.
You have the right to take care of yourself.
These are just some of the rights set out in the developed by the Caregiver Bill of Rights a group of mental health organizations.
And there’s another right that’s rarely mentioned: you too have the right to ask for help and support.
This is why Relief has designed a brand new service for the loved ones of people living with anxiety, depression or bipolarity.
Each week, you will be able to participate in virtual support groups with people who are going through situations similar to your own. The groups help you come away better equipped and more in control.
These virtual support groups for loved ones are facilitated by mental health professionals and are offered free of charge.
It’s time to take care of yourself—just as you take care of your loved ones.
Join a support group
Relief would like to acknowledge the contribution of Charles Saliba-Couture to this article.