Dealing With Anxiety Attacks Being with someone who suffers anxiety attacks can be frustrating when they dismiss your help. Here are some tips that will keep you out of hot water and may actually help your spouse. BY DR. NEIL FIORE
Having an anxiety attack is a terrifying event. And it can affect you and your spouse.
Why do I get so frustrated when I try to help my spouse stay calm?
When you try to help your spouse, he or she may feel youíre trying to be the smart hero while they get to play the role of the dumb victim. When you charge in as the rescuer you expect them to applaud, but they may feel youíre shifting the spotlight to your heroism and away from their problemĖĖone you have not taken the time to understand.
The more you try to help by making suggestions and giving advice the more youíll feel frustrated because youíre not allowed to solve the problem. Eventually, youíll get angry at your spouseís seeming lack of gratitude, and he or she will feel more alone and more anxious. Itís natural to want to solve the problem when someone is worried and anxious. However, saying, "Itís okayÖ everything will be fine. See, thereís nothing to be afraid of," usually makes things worse. And, donít even think of telling your spouse how you would bravely handle the same situation.
Imagine that youíre trying to calm a frightened, crying child who is about to go through a simple medical procedure such as having blood drawn. If you say to that child, "Now, now, itís okay. It wonít hurt. You can stop crying." You just invalidated the childís true feelings and you will soon lose credibility when the needle does hurt. Your good intention of dismissing the childís fears has left the child feeling more alone with his or her overwhelming feelings.
Try Connecting First Before You Try Problem Solving
Being a hero is a difficult balancing act. You must keep some distance from the problem so you donít get overwhelmed yourself. Yet, you must understand and empathize with the otherís feelings so you earn the right offer help.
For example, what if you said to that child, "Youíre afraid itís going to hurt. You donít want it to hurt, but it may pinch for a second. Then it will stop hurting and make you stronger." Youíve validated the childís feelings and told the truth about the pain caused by needles. Suddenly, the child has someone who understands and he or she doesnít feel so alone. This is what is needed and what is truly helpful. You first honor the personís feelings, connect with them, and support their ability to cope. You donít take away their problem or their feelings.
Realize that your spouse would quickly change if he or she could. Theyíre still rational, but much of what theyíre feeling is out of their control. They will calm down once they know they can safely express their feelings with you without fear of rejection, criticism or judgment. Of course, youíre not your spouseís therapist and you have your own fears and self-doubts. It makes sense, therefore, to consider therapies, such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, that research has shown can be effective in reducing the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Sometimes the best you can do is to say, "Honey, I wish I could help, but all I can do is hold you while you go through this and let you know Iím here for you. Iím not going away. Youíre such a strong person in so many other areas of your life; I know it must be awful if youíre feeling so scared about this."
Dr. Neil Fiore is a psychologist practicing in Berkeley, CA, a coach, a speaker, and author of Awaken Your Strongest Self: Break Free of Stress, Inner Conflict, and Self-Sabotage [McGraw-Hill, 2006]. His bestselling guide to overcoming procrastination, The Now Habit [Putnam, 2007], is revised and available at iTunes under "Audio books," and at www.audible.com under "Self-Development." You can schedule phone sessions with Neil at "Coaching" along with his "Free Articles & Tips" at www.neilfiore.com.