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How to cope with and help a loved one experiencing anxiety and depression


By Kate (ADAVIC Volunteer)

This page created 29 October 2013

 
Nearly everyone experiences nervousness, a sense of worry or sadness at times, but for some people these feelings become a part of day-to-day life and can really affect one’s daily functioning. Personally, I have not experienced real bouts of anxiety or depression, but it has plagued certain friends and family members of mine for as long as I can remember. This shouldn’t be surprising, considering that one in five Australians will experience a mental disorder in any 12-month period. More specifically, anxiety disorders affect around 14% of the adult population every year, while depression affects around six percent of the adult population annually.
 
As troubling as anxiety and depression can be for its sufferers, sometimes it’s not easy watching a loved one go through it, while you sit on the outside, feeling somewhat helpless. I eventually realised that as someone surrounded by these issues, but not directly involved, I had to start asking myself; what should I be looking out for? What I could do to help? What support is out there for the people on the perimeter of anxiety and depression?
 
So what is anxiety?
Anxiety refers to the physical, mental and behavioural changes we feel in response to a threat. These changes are sometimes referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response, because they prepare us to respond to danger. These responses are a naturally occurring part of daily life. Anxiety disorders, however, are different from ‘everyday’ anxiety in that they are more intense and persistent, to a degree which interferes with a person's life. Such disorders share an extreme sense of fear and worry accompanied by physical symptoms which can affect all systems of the body. Anxiety disorders occur when an individual has an intense and paralysing sense of fear or a more sustained pattern of worrying when there is no real danger or threat.
 
Alternatively, depression is categorised by feelings of sadness and grief, which most of us experience from time to time, as a normal reaction to the ups and downs of life. Clinical depression is more than just a feeling of unhappiness, or a brief period of feeling ‘down’; it is a mood disorder that may be felt as ongoing sadness or loss of pleasure and enjoyment in most facets of life. For a diagnosis of clinical depression, an individual must experience the feeling of sadness intensely and consistently for more than two weeks.
 
Although the indicators and effects of anxiety and depression can vary greatly between individuals, there are a number of common symptoms synonymous with each condition. So what should we be looking out for?
 
Symptoms of anxiety may include:
 
  • A sense of worry or impending doom
  • Feelings of irritability, uneasiness and an inability to relax
  • Body sensations including breathlessness, palpitations, dizziness, sweating
  • An overwhelming feeling of panic
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Changed perceptions whereby, (in a panic attack), the world may seem unreal.
 
Symptoms of depression may include:
 
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Changes in appetite and/or body weight
  • Dysphoria (a ‘bad mood’, irritability, sadness)
  • Anhedonia (loss of interest in activities such as work, sport or sex)
  • Fatigue
  • Agitation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Low self-esteem (and associated feelings; guilt, worthlessness, hopelessness)
  • Suicidal thoughts or preoccupation with death.
 
So you’ve detected some of these symptoms, or your loved one has had a formal diagnosis, how can you help? It's not always easy to know how to provide help and support for someone who is experiencing anxiety or depression as we all respond to situations and talk about things differently. The following are some tips which may ease the experience for your loved one, or encourage them to get the help they may need.
 
Taking the first step towards helping someone with anxiety or depression will require some thought and care. The basics are essential; choose a mutually convenient time and place to approach the subject. Remember that this is a very personal experience, and free-flowing conversation will be aided by a level of comfort. It is important to note that sometimes when a person wants to talk to you, they may not be seeking advice, but rather just need to discuss their concerns. Being an active listener, that is, pay attention to what the other person is saying and responding accordingly, rather than talking, will help you to understand how they feel and help them to feel supported. Beyondblue propose that you save any suggestions, solutions or advice for a later discussion and instead, offer neutral comments such as "I can see how that would bother you...". Additionally, body language plays a vital role in helping people feel comfortable. Maintain eye contact and sit in a relaxed position to help create a contented atmosphere.

In order to help start a conversation, it’s often beneficial to use open-ended questions as they require more information and can’t be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response. Some examples are "So tell me about..?" or "What's troubling you?” Now I know this all sounds fairly simple, but keeping these tips in mind may help your loved one immensely, even when the conversation seems particularly difficult. Sometimes when a person is experiencing the symptoms of anxiety, they may find it awkward to openly discuss their thoughts and emotions. They may even get angry when asked if they're okay. Remaining calm, firm, fair and consistent as well as in control of your own emotions may be helpful when having a difficult conversation. You may also find that just spending time and talking with your loved one helps them feel supported by showing that you care and understand.

There may also be some practical ways in which you can help. Individuals with anxiety and/or depression may be afraid or overwhelmed at the thought of seeking help and support. The type and amount of help that families and friends can provide depends on the relationship with the individual experiencing the issue. If the person doesn’t appear ready or willing to seek and receive help, it can be a very challenging time for those involved.  Below are some Do's and Don’ts for helping a person experiencing anxiety and/or depression.

DO’s – Or things that may allow you to help someone

  • Spend time talking about their experiences
  • Indicate that you've noticed a change in their behaviour / emotions / feelings
  • Let them know you're there to listen without being judgmental  
  • Highlight the option of seeing a doctor or health professional
  • Recommend and/or assist them to make an appointment
  • Go with the person to the doctor or health professional  
  • Check in with them - asking how their appointment went
  • Assist them in finding information about anxiety or depression  
  • Talk openly about their feelings
  • Encourage them to try to get enough sleep, exercise and to eat well  
  • Encourage them to use self-help strategies (e.g. breathing exercises)
  • Encourage them to face their fears with support from their doctor / psychologist  
  • Contact a doctor or hospital, if they become a threat to themselves or others.

DON'Ts – Or things that can be unhelpful

  • Pressure them to "just relax" or "calm down"  
  • Stay away or avoid the person
  • Pressure them to manage how they're feeling with drugs or alcohol
  • Assume that you can make them feel less anxious on your own  
  • Help them avoid situations that make them feel anxious  
  • Assume the problem will just go away.
 

At times, caring for a person with anxiety or depression can be difficult, and it's not unusual for a carer to experience anger, guilt or fear. The following are some practical tips that can help carers cope and look after themselves. Firstly, learning about anxiety or depression can help you to understand why a person with the illness/condition/experience acts in a certain way. This acquired knowledge may help you to separate the illness from the affected individual, and realise that their mood, behaviour and reactions are not necessarily directed at any person in particular. Secondly, it is important for family members and friends to avoid ‘burnout’ by looking after themselves as well as their loved ones. Make sure you spend time doing things you enjoy. This will help to ease tension, limit the stress of the situation, and ultimately make you a more balanced support for your loved one.

 
 

Caring for someone who has an anxiety disorder or depression can be hard and it can make people feel very isolated. So who can provide support for those of us in a carer or concerned loved one type role? The Association of Relatives and Friends of the Emotionally and Mentally Ill Australia (ARAFEMI) is a great place to start. ARAFEMI is a non-profit organisation, which works from a recovery perspective, aiming to assist those less directly affected by mental health issues. They provide good support for families and carers through education, outreach support services, prevention and recovery care programs, flexible respite care, support groups, a telephone helpline, carer counselling and peer support initiatives. Additionally their website provides good online resources including links to information and literature.



 
SANE Australia also produces a range of easy-to-read publications and multimedia resources on mental illness. The SANE guide for families explains how to better handle common issues associated with being a carer, such as developing a positive attitude, looking after yourself and getting the help you are entitled to. The guide can be purchased online by following the below link.



 
More specifically for friends and family members of a young person with anxiety or depression, headspace, is a good information resource. They again highlight that although helping a young person through this difficult time can be rewarding, it may cause you to feel stressed and tired. The website features a Carer Information Pack (produced by the Commonwealth Carer Resource Centre), which contains fact sheets about facets of anxiety and depression and information to support carers.




Summary

 
In summary, anxiety and depression are experienced by nearly everyone, to some degree, in their lifetime. Whether these issues are direct or indirect occurrences of one’s life, they can become a salient part of our day to day living. As someone on the outside looking in at a loved one suffering, it was important for me to know what I could do to help and to understand that I’m not alone in this journey. I hope this has highlighted to others that there is help available, and that anxiety and depression doesn’t have to take control of your life.
 
 
 
References
 
Department of Health and Ageing (2009), Australian Bureau of statistics’ National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing (2008): Summary of Results, http://www.responseability.org/site/index.cfm?display=134882
 
SANE Australia (2012), Facts and Figures About Mental Illness, http://www.sane.org/information/factsheets-podcasts/204-facts-and-figures
 
Department of Health and Ageing - Responsibility (2009), Anxiety Disorders Factsheet, www.responsibility.org
 
Department of Health and Ageing - Responsibility (2009), Depression Factsheet, www.responsibility.org
 
beyondblue (2006), Anxiety – Helping Others, http://www.beyondblue.org.au/index.aspx?link_id=90.622
 


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