10 Ways to Help Someone Struggling with Anxiety
Anxiety is real. it’s crippling and it’s affecting more + more people around the world by the minute. Helping a loved one struggling with anxiety can be a pretty tough job too. Even when your heart’s in the right place, it’s easy to say things like (I’ve been on the giving + receiving ends of all these phrases 🤦🏻♀️) “you’ll get over it,” “just push through,” “it’s all in your head,” “try to calm down” or “you’re overthinking it”. Saying things like this can do more harm than good. Just like it’s nearly impossible and damaging to walk on broken leg, it is equally difficult to try and think normally when you’re suffering from anxiety.
The truth is, I had never struggled with anxiety until a few years ago. I started realizing how I had failed those in my life who were living with chronic anxiety because I hadn’t taken the time to educate myself on the causes, the affects and how to support those struggling.
Use the tactics below to let your loved one know you’re available, should they need anything. These gentle steps will help them feel heard, valued, and supported...and to be honest, those are very powerful feelings that can make a lasting impact.
1. Be available to actively listen.
Let them know know that they can talk to you about anything openly, without any fear of judgment. It's very important that they know that you're there to lend them an ear, and that you aren't going to judge them or change the way you think and feel about them based on anything they say - even if they say the same fear over and over again (because for many, the fears and thoughts are nearly exactly the same each time).
2. Don’t assume they’re ok (or not), ask them if they are.
3. Don’t give advice if they haven’t asked for it.
You can help by simply being present and providing a distraction. If they want to open up, allow them to do so on their terms.
Please avoid these phrases: calm down, there’s no reason to be anxious, there’s nothing to be afraid of, you don’t have to be afraid.
These phrases all share a dismissal of the person’s feelings, which only adds to their shame and confusion. Feelings, unfortunately, can’t be changed or turned off, only our thoughts about them.
Try instead to say: I know you are uncomfortable and scared, but you will get through this; As inconvenient as they are, these are your feelings and you will figure them out; I know you are scared, and I am standing with you; We’ll get through this together.
4. Remind them they’re loved and cared for.
5. Respect their challenges even if you don’t understand them.
6. If they open up about their anxiety, help them temper their thinking (google: cognitive therapy techniques) by asking these three questions:
What’s the worst that could happen?
What’s the best that could happen?
What’s most realistic or likely to happen?
7. Educate yourself about what can help anxiety.
If you know the specific type of anxiety your friend has, you can utilize some of the online anxiety help resources for that particular issue. Understanding what helps anxiety takes a bit of time and effort, but it's achievable if you're prepared to take it one step at a time and re-read any info you don't understand straight away. For free and user-friendly resources, I like this series of mental health workbooks. The various anxiety offerings give a good overview of how a predisposition to anxiety can turn into an anxiety disorder, and how anxiety works. You'll learn about the links between triggers and anxious thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, as well as how to reframe anxiety-based thinking.
In addition, there are specific types of anxiety strategies that are suited to being done with an accountability partner:
Exercise (or any type of physical activity)
Going to a yoga class, or doing meditation or breathing exercises together
Working through a hierarchy of things someone is avoiding or putting off due to anxiety. Each person would have their own list. Start with things that feel mildly anxiety provoking, and work up. A practical way to do this is as a weekly "power hour," where you have an hour once a week in which you tackle something you've each been avoiding due to feeling anxious or overwhelmed.
Spotting and balancing anxiety thoughts. For example, if you don't get an email reply back from someone straight away, does that automatically imply bad news?
8. Help your anxious friend break free of avoidance behavior.
I briefly mentioned above the idea of working through an avoidance hierarchy. Avoidance behavior is a huge part of what causes anxiety. When someone avoids something they need to complete due to anxiety, their anxiety will snowball over time.
Common examples of such behavior include avoiding:
Making phone calls
Getting started on a task that feels intimidating (which could be anything from writing an essay, to completing an annual review for work, to choosing a new dishwasher when the current one has broken)
Making requests (such as asking a boss for time off)
The more the anxious person puts off what they need to do, the more likely they are to experience intrusive thoughts about it. Whatever the person is avoiding, they may find it helpful to talk through the steps they'd need to do to break free of their avoidance. For example, "Well, the first step I'd need to do is...." Help them identify and/or take that first step.
9. Destigmatize your friend's experience of anxiety.
People who have high anxiety are often embarrassed by their anxiety symptoms.
They may fear their anxiety showing up when they're in a performance or social situation, or worry that it will be visible to others. For example, they may fear that other people will notice them sweating or if their voice starts shaking during a client meeting at work. The key is not to reassure the person that those things will never happen, but to reassure them that they can cope if/when they do.
For people who have anxiety attacks, the fear of having one is often as debilitating as the attacks themselves. The person may fear having a panic attack in specific situations (e.g., due to being in the middle seat on an aircraft or at the movies), or that they will experience one out of the blue.
If your loved one has a clinical anxiety disorder, and their anxiety feels out of control to them, they may worry they're losing their mind or "going crazy." They may see anxiety as a sign of being a weak person or doubt that there are effective therapies out there that will help them overcome their anxiety.
Communicate that you don't see their anxiety as a weakness, character flaw, or a sign of them being incompetent in their life, work, or other roles (such as being a parent or friend).
Normalize any types of thoughts you can relate to. There are many kinds of anxiety-based thoughts people with anxiety disorders experience that even relatively non-anxious people also experience from time to time. For example, most people can relate to the fear of being judged or of asking for something and being told no.
Also, it's extremely common for anyone to have fleeting thoughts that they'll do something odd, dangerous, or out of character (e.g., mow down a pedestrian while driving, or develop a sudden urge to become violent). Individuals with anxiety often don't realize that many people have these types of thoughts. People who are not especially anxious tend to write off the thoughts as just weird, whereas those who are anxious often equate having the thoughts with a real risk that they will act on one of their odd thoughts.
10. Help them find the support they need.
You can't expect to cure your loved one's anxiety yourself, no matter how smart you are, how much you care about them, or how much time you're willing to put in.
Sometimes the best solution for how to help an anxious person is to help your loved one access a therapist (e.g., you might offer to help with childcare or to go to the first appointment with them). If they haven't tried Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) before, then that is the best place to start for anxiety help. It's the type of therapy with the most evidence behind it for treating anxiety.
If your friend is getting professional help for anxiety, invite them to tell you about what they're learning and working on. If you think the person might interpret your questioning as checking up on them, you'll need to be sensitive about how you do this.
Keep it positive by asking them about any useful insights they've gotten, or any anxiety management techniques they've learned that are working well for them.
If there is something that isn't working for them about their sessions with their therapist, encourage them to talk to their therapist directly. People who are anxious often avoid bringing up certain topics with their therapist. There are many different options for what can help with anxiety, and it's all about finding the best fit between the person and the strategies. It's no big deal if one particular approach doesn't work for an individual, since there are many other options to try.
If you're willing, let them know you're happy to be a partner for them in completing their therapy homework (such as trying out a meditation together, or doing some thinking or behavioral exercises).
Getting help for anxiety is often a big step for someone who habitually avoids things that make them feel anxious. Your loved one will likely need all the encouragement you're able to give!