Anxiety rarely just impacts the person experiencing it; it has a way of spilling out into the environment, easily impacting anyone nearby.
Here are some ways to help support someone dealing with anxious thoughts and behaviors:
Avoid Trying to Fix it
The most important thing to remember is that it’s impossible to fix someone’s anxiety.
Two common ways we try to fix is by:
- Reassuring the person; OR by
- Taking over the situation completely
When we do these things, we’re actually on anxiety’s side. We make it worse.
Anxiety, in some ways, can act like an addiction: a person is experiencing distressing thoughts and emotions, and as a result, seeks out the comfort of reassurance or avoidance of the trigger. Reassurance and avoidance are the drug of choice for anxiety. They bring someone temporary relief, however, in the long-run, it does nothing to help. The person gets that temporary relief, seeks it out more often, but slowly needs more and more of it to get the same level or relief.
It’s important that we not collude with the anxiety by giving reassurance or helping our friend or family member avoid it. If we do, we become a drug pusher of sorts.
So, what do we do instead?
We all benefit from empathy. It drives connection.
And the more we can relate to a person’s situation, the easier it is to have empathy. Think of a time when you were anxious. Remind yourself how difficult it was to deal with.
Often times we are quick to give advice when we’re calm and the other person is emotional, “Hey, Mike you just need to calm down.”
Though it’s logical and calming down is probably the best thing for the person, telling someone to “just calm down” inadvertently minimizes how difficult their situation is.
Advice drives disconnection and increases the intensity of the person’s emotions.
So, how do we express empathy?
- Validate their pain: “You’re anxious and this is a really difficult place to be”
- Just be there and listen; stay far away from advice
- Thank the person for telling you what’s going on
- Show interest and concern
Don’t Force Any Action
Though we don’t want to collude with the anxiety, we also don’t want to try to convince someone to do something they don’t really want to do.
Sometimes anxiety can be caused be serious trauma. And since we can’t know the source of someone’s anxiety, we need to be extremely careful, as it’s fairly easy to make it worse.
By forcing action on someone it can not only negatively impact the relationship, but can also push someone even further down the anxiety hole.
Be a Mirror
One of the best things we can do for someone is be like a mirror by reflecting back what we’re hearing: “You’re not sure if you turned the stove off and you’re feeling nervous that your apartment might burn down.”
By reflecting what we are hearing we do two things:
- It helps us to pause and resist getting sucked into trying to fix
- It helps the person experience anxiety to become more self-aware
When someone is experiencing anxiety, their main focus is on relieving it by trying to find certainty. Their mind says “You need to know if the stove is off. You need to know if the stove is off. You need to know if the stove is off.” Over and over again.
By simply reflecting back what’s going on, we’re helping the person become more objective in a situation that is clouded by emotion.
Name the Real Issue: Anxiety
Going back to the stove example, the real issue isn’t the stove. It’s the anxiety.
By naming the real issue, we again help the person snap out of their fixation on the stove, and help bring their awareness to their emotions.
So, how do we name it?
A great way is by using externalizing language, which is a well-known counseling technique.
For example, notice the difference between:
- “I’m anxious” VS
- “Anxiety is visiting me right now”
“I’m anxious” is permanent. It’s in our blood. “Anxiety is visiting me right now” is more like a cloud just passing by. It’s not who we are.
So, by making slight adjustments to our words, we can help the person realize that anxiety is not who they are, but instead just a passing emotion.
So, we can say things like:
- “I hate when anxiety comes and visits me like that”
- “Oh, that worry cloud is passing by again”
When someone near us is struggling with anxious feelings on a regular basis, it can be very exhausting to be around.
Though we should try to be patient and supportive, we all have limits. It’s important to recognize and honor our limits.
If we don’t take care of ourselves first, we certainty can’t be there for someone else.
Lastly, if you see that a loved one’s anxiety is starting to bring substantial negative consequences to their life, it can be helpful to express your observations in a kind and supportive way.
When I meet a counseling client for the first time, I usually ask “Why did you seek counseling now?” Often times the client says that it’s because a close friend or their spouse has expressed repeated concern.
Expressing concern is a great way to help nudge someone to make a change.
At the same time, we should be careful how we do it as it’s very likely the person struggling with anxiety feels embarrassed, guilt, or even shame about it.
Here are some ways to express concern without stigmatizing or labeling your loved one:
- “I really miss doing ________ with you. And I’ve noticed anxious feelings have been getting in the way of that more often.”
- “I’ve noticed ________. Can I ask if there’s a way I can help support?”
Be careful with giving advice or giving too much of your opinion. Often times it’s about continuously planting seeds rather than a one-time conversation that sparks someone to seek a change.
Anxiety is tough. It’s tough on the person experiencing it and it’s tough for those close in their lives.
When helping someone struggling with anxiety, remember to first take care of yourself. Show compassion, concern for your loved one, while making sure you set clear boundaries with the anxiety.