Before I learned how to manage my anxiety, a part of me wished that there was a guidebook for my friends and family on how to help someone with anxiety. Having anxiety can make a person feel incredibly helpless and out of control. Oftentimes, a person with anxiety knows that their fears are irrational, but anxiety doesn’t work like that. It likes to make a person feel like the world is ending! Panic attacks can make a person feel like they’re dying. This was all true for me. Unfortunately, I got a lot of bad advice from people over the years, like “You just need to calm down,” or “you’re being unreasonable.” Of course I knew I was being unreasonable and calming down was exactly what I wanted to do! But when an anxious brain is in overdrive, it can be nearly impossible to think about things logically. This kind of feedback can, over time, lead an anxious person to feel ashamed and even crazy.
Over time, I learned how to manage my anxiety better. I also learned how to help other people help me. Now, panic attacks are few and far between. I think about how much easier my life would have been if I would have had some specific strategies to share with my friends and family in order to help me better! Today, I’m sharing some of the best tips to help someone with anxiety. For those of you who struggle with anxiety, feel free to share these ideas with your support network to better help you!
1. Learn how to listen. Really Listen.
Anxiety makes people feel like they’re going crazy. The last thing they want to hear is “relax.” If it were that simple, they would do it! Instead, take the time to really try to understand what the anxious person is going through. Show you are understanding them by repeating back what they say in your own words. Try to read between the lines. Is this really about being stressed out at work? Or is this about an underlying fear of failure?
Empathize with the anxious person. Let them know that you can see how upset they are. One way you can show validation is by saying something like “I can tell that you’re feeling really upset about ____. It makes me sad to know that you are feeling like this. I care about you, and we’re going to get through this together.”
3. Hug it out.
Physical touch can be extremely calming. Tight hugs cause the body to produce oxytocin, the “love chemical,” which helps to reduce anxiety. Physical touch also can help evoke a sense of security. The great things about hugs is that they don’t require any words to effectively help someone with anxiety!
4. Don’t react. Respond.
When an anxious person gets worked up, sometimes they can say some things they don’t mean. This is because their brain is in flight or flight mode. Their brain senses a threat and you may be the unfortunate target. Do your best not to take their words personally and lash out. Instead, consider why the person said what they did, and respond rationally. Use a calm, low voice. Reduce the anxious person’s feelings of being threatened, even if you think they are being irrational! Remember: anxiety is not usually rational.
5. Be patient.
Anxiety is a funny thing. One moment, an anxious person may be freaking out, and the next they’re calm. The next they’re anxious again about the same thing. Whatever calmed them down the first time may not work a second time. An anxious person may have come up with a whole new reason why the world is ending. Just be patient. Reassure the anxious person that things will be okay and that you’ll get through this together. If an anxious person gets the sense that they aren’t allowed to talk about their anxieties, the anxiety can turn into guilt or shame.
6. Let them cry.
Crying is the body’s natural way to release stress. The brain releases different chemicals based on why the person is crying. Crying is a healthy thing! Don’t encourage the crying person to “stop crying” or tell them that they don’t “need to cry.” A lot of times, crying can quickly relieve the anxiety. The exception to this is if the person is full-on sobbing and hyperventilating. At this point, it is appropriate to help the person take some deep breaths and calm down. You certainly don’t want them passing out!
7. Cope with them.
Remind an anxious person of their coping skills, and offer to cope with them. Practice deep breathing together. Pull out some coloring books and crayons. Take a walk together. Find a way to practice some self care for mind, body, and soul. Reminding an anxious person of their coping skills can sometimes be interpreted as combative. When you turn it into a partner activity, it can help the person feel more willing to use their skills.
8. Remind them of past successes.
Be careful not to invalidate the anxious person’s current experience! Reminding an anxious person of previous times they’ve gotten through an anxiety-inducing situation can be a helpful tool. Say something like “Remember the time that you ____? You were able to get through that! How?” Give the person the opportunity to figure it out for themselves before you give them the answers. In order to help someone with anxiety, they need to learn to help themselves eventually.
Anxiety can make a person feel like their problems will never go away. For every “what if?” question, consider all of the possible outcomes. Rate the likelihood of each scenario, and then help the person to figure out what they would do in each case. One of the worst parts about anxiety is the fear of the unknown. Sometimes anxious people don’t even know what they’re anxious about. Help them clarify their fears.
10. Ask what they need.
Sometimes, an anxious person has no idea what they need. Sometimes they know what they need but they’re embarrassed to ask. Let them know that you’re willing to help and that no suggestion is too silly or embarrassing for you to consider. Remember, an anxious person already feels vulnerable so do your best to be supportive. If you’re unable to meet their needs, offer an alternative. For example, “I can’t come with you to the doctor tomorrow because I have to work. But I’m honored that you’d want me to be there! If you want, you can call me before and after your appointment.”
Caring about someone with anxiety can be exhausting. But when you learn effective ways to help someone with anxiety, both you and the anxious person can live happier, more fulfilled lives.