If you’ve ever experienced an anxiety attack, you know just how stressful and frightening it feels. It can seem as though nothing will help, nobody understands, and that it will last forever. Of course, it passes, but in the throes of the anxiety wave there seems to be no escape.
It can also be frightening and heart-wrenching to witness someone else experience anxiety. If your loved one is struggling, it can be hard to know what you can do to support them. Needless to say, telling someone to ‘relax’ or ‘just get over it’ rarely, if ever, works. Though you may feel lost and confused when your loved one is anxious, the good news is that there are some simple yet effective tools and techniques you can apply to ease their inner turmoil.
If you want to know how to help someone with anxiety, the first step is to understand anxiety itself. By educating yourself on the nature of the condition, you will be better equipped to understand and support your struggling loved one.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is not a personal fault or a sign of weakness. It is a completely natural emotion, and it even serves a survival purpose. When a person feels anxious, their nervous system anticipates a threat to their life or well-being. The nervous system is incredibly complex, having evolved over millions of years to help our species survive long enough for you to read this article. A healthy dose of anxiety keeps the nervous system on high alert and helps our body get ready to fight or flee from a potential threat.
So, anxiety itself is not a problem, but it becomes a problem when it persists. People with anxiety disorders experience persistent and excessive worry and rumination that gets in the way of their daily well-being, work or school performance, social life, and relationship health.
Types of Anxiety
Anxiety disorders are some of the most common mental health conditions worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, they affect over 18 percent of the U.S population every year. There are several types of anxiety disorder, including:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder
- Social Anxiety Disorder
- Panic Disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive Disorder
- Specific Phobias
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
There are differences in each of the above, but at the root of all types of anxiety is the belief that one is unsafe. ‘Uncertainty about a possible future threat disrupts our ability to avoid it or to mitigate its negative impact, and thus results in anxiety‘, explains Daniel W. Grupe, associate scientist at the Center for Healthy Minds, University of Wisconsin, Madison, in this article about the uncertainty and anticipation characteristic of anxiety disorders.
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Anxiety?
Though each type varies in terms of the lived experience, there are some common symptoms across the board. Typically, someone with anxiety will experience:
- Shortness of breath
- Excessive worry
- Muscle tension
- Obsessive compulsive behavior
- Mind going blank, poor memory
- Difficulty concentrating
- Avoidance of social situations or confrontation
- Tight throat/voice
- Tight chest
- Tight jaw
- Catastrophic thinking (anticipating the worst-case scenario)
- Using mood-altering substances or behaviors to cope
Learning to recognize the above is a crucial skill to develop if you want to help someone with anxiety.
What NOT to do to Help Someone with Anxiety
Before we look at the things you can do to help, let’s first consider some things you should avoid. People with anxiety are in a sensitive and vulnerable position regarding their mental health, so even with the best intentions you can end up exacerbating the experience by taking the wrong approach. If a friend or loved one is struggling, consider the following:
Don’t Enable Their Anxiety
While it’s important to listen and offer support, try not to enable your friend’s anxiety. It’s normal to want to go out of your way to help them out and give them what they think or say they need, but the fact is that anxiety is a pervasive and intrusive condition, and if you enable it will continue to feed on the person and continue to deteriorate their mental health.
Enabling looks like changing your behavior or frequently going out of your way to help the other person. For example, your anxious partner might avoid social situations out of fear of a panic attack. They want to stay home, but you are looking forward to that dinner at your friend’s house or that work party.
Enabling might look like staying home with them, neglecting your own wants to make them feel better. It can seem thoughtful and considerate, but if you continue to enable anxiety-related avoidance behaviors, the person may not find the motivation to work on their condition.
What You Can Do and How to Help Someone with Anxiety
Naturally, you want to help your friend or loved one as much as possible. Note that last part – as much as possible. Try to accept that you may not be able to entirely solve their problem for them. Anxiety is a challenging condition so it’s great to receive support, but the real healing work comes from within.
Your loved one needs to work on their anxiety by doing what they can to manage their symptoms, such as adhering to a healthy, nutritious diet, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and, if necessary, seeking professional support to address the root causes of their condition.
Still, while you can’t solve all their problems, there are some things you can do to help them get their mental health back on track.
Listen and Validate
The person experiencing anxiety knows that their fears and worries aren’t always entirely rational. As such, pointing out their irrationality doesn’t usually help. Instead, try to listen to whatever they need to talk about, and validate their feelings.
A friendly reminder: if what they need to talk about is too uncomfortable or distressing for you – that’s ok. It’s not your responsibility to take on something you’re not ready for, or that would cause you to feel anxious within yourself. You’re more helpful to others when you look after your own mental health first.
Still, if you can listen without judgment and with compassion and empathy, you’re already offering a lot to your struggling loved one. Simply being listened to instils a sense of safety in a person. This is crucial, because at the core of anxiety disorders lies the belief that one is unsafe.
Express Your Concern
If you notice the signs and symptoms of anxiety in a friend or loved one, consider asking them about how they feel. Feelings of low self-esteem and low self-worth often accompany anxiety, so the person struggling may not feel like they can speak openly about their experience and still be loved and cared for. Encourage them to talk if they need to talk, and offer a compassionate, non-judgmental ear.
If you’re concerned about their well-being, let them know. Anxiety can be an isolating condition, so your expression of concern may let the person know that someone loves them and wants them to feel better.
The Dangers of Anxiety
Anxiety ranges from mild to severe. Most of us will experience mild anxiety at some point in our lives, but it is not usually a cause for concern. It passes, and we get on with our daily lives, unhindered by worry, fear, and rumination. Others are not so fortunate.
On the severe end of the anxiety spectrum, a person struggling is likely to experience a decline in their performance at school or work, suffer from strained relationships, and find it hard to connect and bond with others. They are also likely to engage in unhealthy and maladaptive coping methods to alleviate their symptoms. Such methods of coping include:
- Avoidance, isolation
- Substance use and abuse
- Disordered eating
One of the biggest dangers with anxiety is that the unhealthy, maladaptive coping methods one may use to manage their symptoms pose a serious health risk. For example, some sufferers choose to drink alcohol or use other substances to deal with their anxiety-related thoughts and feelings.
Any relief gained from drug or alcohol use is temporary – the anxious feelings will soon return. In an attempt to regain control, the person struggling might continue to turn to substances, which sets the stage for dependence and addiction to occur.
Know When to Seek Professional Help
If anxiety is significantly disrupting your friend’s life, it’s important that they speak to a professional therapist. As much as we can help ourselves and others through support and validation, a trained therapist can provide your friend with evidence-based, expert-led treatment.
What Treatment Options are Available for Anxiety?
Research shows that a combination of psychotherapy and medication can reduce anxiety symptoms, reduce the severity of co-occurring depression, and ultimately help the person achieve a better quality of life.
CBT for Anxiety
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a popular treatment approach for anxiety. It addresses the ‘cognitive triangle’ – the interconnection between our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. For example, if you have distressing anxious thoughts, you might then experience feelings of fear or discomfort in the body.
In an attempt to alleviate the feeling, you might engage in an unhealthy avoidant behavior such as substance use, social withdrawal, self harm, binge eating, or not eating at all. Having recognized the behavior as unhealthy, you might then experience shame or guilt-ridden thoughts, which influence your feelings, which in turn influence your behavior.
In CBT, an attuned and compassionate therapist helps a person address the root causes of their anxiety, promoting mindful awareness of the cognitive triangle and equipping them with the skills necessary to stop its negative cycle.
Medication for Anxiety
A mental health professional can provide evidence-based, FDA-approved medication to help your friend manage their anxiety. While medication is not a cure-all approach, it can help to mitigate the symptoms long enough to support positive therapeutic outcomes.
Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI’s) are a popular pharmacological approach to anxiety and depression-related disorders. If your friend does choose to take medication for their condition, encourage them to only do so under the strict support and guidance of a trained GP or mental health professional.
The Bottom Line
If you want to truly help your friend struggling with anxiety, let them know that you support them. Whether the person is socially anxious, is prone to panic attacks, or has a specific phobia, your compassionate and informed support will go a long way in helping them feel better. Remember – make sure to set healthy boundaries by letting them know that you will support them as much as you can but that your own mental health is your priority.