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How Do I Help a Friend or Family Member Diagnosed with Social Anxiety Disorder?

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Updated December 04, 2013

If a close friend or family member has been diagnosed with social anxiety disorder (SAD), there are many challenges that he or she will face. Having a supportive family and network of friends will make treatment and recovery easier. Getting better is a process -- it takes hard work on the part of the person diagnosed and patience from family and friends. Below are a variety of ways to support your friend or family member through this process.

  • Learn About the Disorder
    SAD is more than just severe shyness. It is a real medical condition that has been linked to abnormalities in brain chemistry and dysfunctional thinking patterns. Learning as much as you can about the symptoms of the disorder and what treatments are effective will help you know what to expect from the illness and from recovery.
     
  • Don’t Enable
    Your friend or relative may have spent many years with the symptoms of SAD before being diagnosed. During this time, you may have developed habits to help him or her avoid anxiety-provoking situations. It will take time and practice to unlearn these patterns.

    For example, if you have developed the habit of speaking on behalf of your sister while in social situations, gradually stop this behavior. If she becomes too anxious and wants to leave a social situation, negotiate with her to stay just a little bit longer. It is a delicate balance between not enabling avoidance and being sensitive to the need for slow progress. Learn when to be patient and when to push.
     

  • Encourage Treatment
    If your friend or family member is resistant to receiving treatment, listen to his concerns. If he has questions about specific aspects of treatment, you can ask to speak to a member of the treatment team to ease his worries. Gently encourage him to seek treatment, and encourage him to complete treatment once it has begun.
     
  • Praise Small Accomplishments
    Therapy and recovery are gradual processes. It is important that you recognize small steps made by your friend or family member and give praise and positive feedback. Voice that you are proud of her for trying, even if she doesn't initially reach a goal that has been set. Applaud progress and encourage the use of skills learned during therapy.
     
  • Keep to a Routine
    The period of treatment and recovery can be a stressful time. It’s important that your friend or family member knows that you will be consistent and reliable, and that there will be routines that can be counted on. If you normally spend a couple of hours at a dinner party, don’t expect your spouse to stay late into the night. During particularly stressful periods such as holidays, be flexible and modify your expectations. Try to keep family life as stress-free as possible.
     
  • Ask, "What Do You Need?"
    Don’t assume that you know what your friend or family member needs. If you are in an anxiety-provoking situation, ask how you can best help him or her cope. Together you can determine how little or how much you will need to be involved in the recovery process.
     
  • Be Patient
    Treatment and recovery can be a slow process -- it may take months to change patterns that have been learned over many years. Be patient and don’t expect too much from your friend or family member all at once.
     
  • Manage Your Own Emotions
    If your friend or family member becomes overly anxious or panicky in certain situations, it is important not to get too emotional yourself. Although it is important to be empathetic, try not to focus too much on the fear.

    For example, if your friend panics before going to a social gathering, avoid overly empathizing with him about how difficult it will be. Focus on the positive progress that he is making and your confidence in his ability to cope.
     

  • Don’t Place Blame
    Do not regard SAD as being someone's fault. Feeling guilty or blaming your friend or relative will only make things worse. Accept that the disorder is the result of biological and psychological factors that are out of everyone's control.
     
  • Be a Good Listener
    Sometimes just telling someone about your problems makes them seem more manageable. Allow your friend or family member to explain how she feels. In addition to making you more aware of what she is going through, it will help her feel less isolated. Don’t tell her that she is being ridiculous or that her fears are silly. A person with SAD knows that his or her fears are irrational but, nevertheless, is unable to control them.

Sources:

Anxiety Disorders Association of America. Helping a Family Member. 21 October 2007.

Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Anxiety Disorders: An Information Guide. Help for Partners and Families. 21 October 2007.

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