Us millennials are an anxious bunch. In fact, recent studies suggest that we may well be the most anxious generation in recent history, with a host of potential causes being blamed for our mental woes. From social media to mountains of debt and unprecedented work insecurity, it’s no surprise that young women are turning to therapy in their droves.
In spite of this, entering therapy was not a decision I took lightly. I had gritted my teeth and insisted I was absolutely definitely fine as a mindset of panic and fear slowly took over as my go-to mentality for much of my early twenties. It was only when friends began to gently insist that I could benefit from some professional help that I finally gave in. The constant worry was wearing me down and I was badly in need of a break from my own head.
Of course there were things that I had hoped for from the counseling sessions I began to attend in a small and slightly dilapidated building every Tuesday night. I wanted to be better equipped to deal with set-backs and career stresses. I wanted to escape the spirals of second-guessing I frequently found myself falling into. But perhaps most importantly, I wanted anxiety to be less pervading in my personal relationships.
From social anxiety to anxiety attachment disorders, mental health can seriously impact how you interact with others. Although asking for help is primarily about you, there are also many surprising benefits that addressing anxiety can have on your relationships with others:
You become a better listener
Experiencing anxiety can make it difficult to be present. Sufferers will be familiar with the all-consuming sensations that accompany particularly bad points of the disorder — the constant mental chatter, the physical sensations of feeling sick or panicked, or that fight-or-flight sensation of something being badly wrong that requires your immediate and full attention. This can make it difficult to focus, whether a colleague is telling you about their weekend or a friend is pouring their heart out over a particularly terrible break-up.
An important component of addressing anxiety is the ability to compartmentalize fears and to accept that there is a time and a place to consider your worries — and this probably won’t be around the water cooler or over brunch. Once you learn to set anxious thoughts aside you’ll find yourself more engaged in social situations and more comfortable giving the people around you time and focus.
You have more mental space to focus on those around you
Anxiety disorders have a tendency to turn your attention inwards. Is that person angry with me? Did I say something wrong in that conversation? How could my actions result in a bad outcome?
For me, this was particularly apparent when dating. I gave little thought to whether I genuinely liked a person or if we had any real connection, focusing more on my own dating performance. How had I come across? Was I funny enough, sexy enough, smart enough? And crucially, did they want to see me again? Dating was a way of measuring myself up — and frequently convincing myself that I would fall short.
When your own shortcomings are relegated to second place it becomes infinitely easier to turn your focus outwards. A less anxious mind has the space to concentrate on fostering genuine connections and the energy to truly invest in relationships.
You learn how to let your guard down
In one of my first therapy sessions I was sat in front of an enormous flow chart made up of marker pen thought bubbles and arrows. Once we got past the obscurity of the scribbled scenarios the gist was simple: your perception of an event leads directly to your response. If you’re an anxious person then your perception will be warped, and in accordance so will your reaction.
Once you stop assuming the worst it becomes easier to let people in. An ability to be vulnerable is crucial to building both romantic and platonic relationships, and letting your guard down means you’ll soon find yourself reaping the rewards of a more open and tolerant mindset.
You feel empowered to say no when you need to
Learning to prioritize your mental health means learning to practice a little self-care — and a key component of this is saying no every once in a while. This is a tricky skill to learn, and one that is at odds with some of the negative automatic thoughts that characterize anxiety disorders. Although sufferers of anxiety are more likely to feel a desire to avoid social scenarios, they are also more likely to feel the pressure to attend events or accept invites. What if our friends are annoyed that we duck out? What if everyone’s having fun without me? What if I stop getting invited?
Understanding that this catastrophizing is a construct of the disorder means that you’ll appreciate that you are allowed to say no — and people will understand. What’s more, prioritizing saying yes to the things that are genuinely important to you means that you’ll have the mental energy to be focused and relaxed when you do choose to socialize, making the time you spend with others happier and more valuable — and others will almost certainly recognize the change.
You realize that it’s OK to ask for help
Having been brought up in the U.K., a stiff upper lip is as part of my cultural make-up as a nice cup of tea. Consequently, I entered into therapy with some trepidation. I had spent years focusing on being fun and cheery when around others and masking my inner turmoil — what would people think when I admitted that I had sought help?
Although not everyone is fortunate enough to have the same response, the reaction I have had from my friends has been nothing but positive. They have been encouraging and curious about my treatment and many nodded knowingly when I first told them about the issues I had tried so hard to mask. A surprising number of them had experienced similar problems and also felt the pressure to keep quiet. Being able to share our struggles has been empowering and cathartic and has revealed the benefits of asking for help, and the kindness and support it is possible to be met with when you do.