Anxiety can strike anyone, anywhere and at any time.
There are countless tips, tricks and techniques to reduce, diffuse and combat the effects of anxiety, but what can you do to help if it’s someone else that feels anxious?
I recently had an email from the mother of a child that suffered with anxiety. While the child was receiving medicationand psychological support through traditional means, the mother had no idea how she and her husband could help the child.
Most of us get anxious from time to time, because it’s a generally useful emotion that helps us to see potential threats and keeps us on alert to being deceived.
However, sometimes people get into patterns of coping with anxiety that cause it to snowball. They overthink (ruminating about the past or worrying about the future), avoid whatever triggers their anxiety, and use compensatory strategies—like being a perfectionist to avoid feeling like an imposter at work—that decrease their anxiety temporarily but increase it over the long-term.
While it’s upsetting and frustrating to see these folks suffer, there are things you can do to help.
If you are related to, know someone, are a colleague of or a parent to someone that suffers from anxiety…
…Here are 7 ways to help someone that suffers from anxiety.
1. Understand how anxiety manifests
We’re generally hard-wired to respond to fear by fight, flight, or freeze. For different people, one of these responses will typically dominate.
When you understand that anxiety is designed to put us into a mode of threat sensitivity, it’s easier to understand someone who is feeling scared (or stressed) and acting out by being irritable or defensive, and to find compassion for them.
By paying attention to how anxiety manifests in the person you care about, you can learn their patterns and be in a better position to help.
2. Match your support to their preferences
Ask someone what type of support they prefer! People with an avoidant attachment style (typically those who’ve experienced rejecting caregiving or relationships in the past) are likely to respond best to strong displays of concrete practical support.
That could include helping the anxious person break tasks down into manageable steps, or talking through specific options for how to deal with a difficult situation.
Other people are more likely to prefer emotional support, especially those who are securely attached, or who have a “preoccupied” attachment style due to a fear of being abandoned or of their emotions being overwhelming to others. Folks like this respond well to statements emphasizing that they’re part of a tight team—for example, their supporter saying, “This is tough but we love each other and we’ll get through it together.”
These are generalizations, so tailor your support by observing what works in your particular situation.
3. Find ways to make use of any insight they have into their anxiety
If your loved one has insight into their anxiety, you can help them spot when their anxiety-driven patterns are occurring. It’s a good idea to have their permission first.
Keep in mind that people who have insight into their anxiety often still feel compelled to “give in” to their anxious thoughts. For instance, a person with health anxiety might logically know that going to the doctor every week for multiple tests is unnecessary, but they can’t help themselves.
4. Help someone who is anxious to temper their thinking
Typically, anxious people have a natural bias towards thinking about worst-case scenarios. To help them get some perspective on this, you can use a cognitive therapy technique where you ask them to consider three questions:
- What’s the worst that could happen?
- What’s the best that could happen?
- What’s most realistic or likely?
Take care not to overly reassure you that their fears won’t come to pass. It’s more useful to emphasize their coping ability. For example, if they’re worried about having a panic attack, you could say, “That would be extremely unpleasant and perhaps quite scary, but it will pass, you’ll deal with it.”
5. Offer support, but don’t take over
Avoidance is a core feature of anxiety, so sometimes we may feel pulled to “help out” by doing things for our avoidant loved ones and inadvertently feed their avoidance. For instance, if a sufferer finds making phone calls incredibly stressful and you end up doing this for them, they never push through their avoidance.
A good general principle to keep in mind is that support means helping someone to help themselves, not doing things for them, which includes virtually anything that stops short of actually doing it yourself.
6. If someone has a more serious anxiety problem, avoid stigmatizing them
People experiencing things like panic disorder, depression mixed with anxiety, post-traumatic stress, or obsessive thinking (including thoughts related to eating disorders) may fear that they’re literally going crazy. Helping them may feel beyond your ability.
You can still be supportive in many ways. When someone is experiencing significant anxiety, it’s helpful to reassure them that your overall perception of them hasn’t changed. They’re still the same person; they’re just suffering a temporary problem situation that has become out of control.
7. Take care of yourself, too
Recognize that your goal is to help, not to cure the person or relieve them from their anxiety. Taking too much responsibility is actually a symptom of anxiety, so make sure you’re not falling into that trap yourself.
Keep in mind that your support doesn’t need to be directly focused on anxiety. For example, exercise is extremely helpful for anxiety; so perhaps you could simply offer to go for a walk together.
It’s also fine to put some limits on your support. A 20-minute de-stressing conversation while taking a walk is far more likely to be useful (and less exhausting) than a two-hour marathon discussion.
Helping someone with anxiety isn’t easy and you may feel like you’re getting it wrong. But, if you remind yourself that you are doing your best, it can help you keep things in perspective.
Let me know which tip is most successful for you.
If you know a sufferer that needs help – a Free Consultation chat with me is always available to them.