People of all ages and walks of life can struggle with feelings of anxiety.
As challenging as it can be to manage it, helping someone in your life with anxiety is often a challenging process. Since anxious thoughts and feelings can present themselves differently in every person, it can be hard to recognize your loved ones' anxiety.
One of the most common coping mechanisms that people feeling anxiety use is to push the people they love away. So it is natural to get upset, frustrated, and confused when you see someone you care for is suffering.
Ultimately, anxiety is something that the individual must want to address. Still, as a significant person in their life, it is something that you can help.
Helping someone with anxiety seems intimidating, but it is something that you can do. In this article, we will outline some options for helping someone in your life with their anxiety.
Before you can effectively help your friend, family member, or colleague, you must understand a bit more about what they are dealing with. The best place to start is with your knowledge. Begin by researching about anxiety and the different issues surrounding it. Start with accredited psychological resources, like mental health workbooks and studies.
According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety is "an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure."
As you can see from that description alone, anxiety can manifest itself in several different ways; not everyone experiencing anxiety reacts the same way. The APA and National Institute of Health further explain that people experiencing anxiety may:
Avoid situations due to worry
Experience recurring intrusive thoughts and concerns
Experience physical symptoms, including sweating, trembling, dizziness, fatigue, or rapid heartbeat.
Have sleeping problems
As you learn more about anxiety, be compassionate toward the person in your life experiencing it. Please pay attention to the patterns of behavior that they manifest and try to understand what they are going through.
People with anxiety may be embarrassed about their symptoms. They can experience even more concern over the judgment they may face.
Reassure the person that they should not ashamed of their anxious thoughts and that you are there to support them through it. To de-stigmatize anxiety, be aware of how you speak about it.
Avoid calling the person or their thoughts "crazy" or "irrational."
Keep your cool; try not to display frustration.
Explain how many other people experience the same thing
Show your friend resources that will help them understand what they are going through is common and treatable.
Indeed, there are some aspects of anxiety that you cannot help someone else with. However, some anxiety strategies are well-suited for you to be a partner in.
Instead of managing your loved one and treating the anxiety strategies as homework, incorporate them into the time you spend together and encourage those helpful behaviors by joining in.
You may even find that these anxiety strategies help you cope with your stress!
Some anxiety strategies that you can do together include:
Several studies back the efficacy of Yoga for mental health. One study in the International Journal of Preventative Medicine concluded that "yoga has an effective role in reducing stress, anxiety, and depression¹. Thus, it can be used as complementary medicine." Yoga is a great way to help your friend relax and manage some of their anxiety, and it's something you can quickly join in.
Exercise is an excellent way to balance the mind and body. A study in Frontiers in Psychiatry explains the well-supported notion that "adults who engage in regular physical activity experience fewer depressive and anxiety symptoms, thus supporting the notion that exercise offers a protective effect against the development of mental disorders."
There are many ways to engage in physical activity and help your friend with their anxiety. Some ideas include:
Group fitness classes
Online fitness videos
Meditation & Breathing
Help your friend by joining in on meditation and breathing exercises. You can attend a class or follow a guided meditation online. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health recommends meditation for easing symptoms associated with anxiety and depression². There are several types of meditation that you can practice to help calm and relax your body, which will help your loved one with psychological balance and coping.
Balance Anxious Thoughts
People experiencing anxiety do not always know when their thinking is propelled by worry and fear. It is incredibly challenging to identify and balance your anxious thoughts. That's where you can help someone else. The Center for Clinical Interventions recommends recognizing "hot thoughts" that are based too heavily on emotions. It would help if you then turned the hot thought into a balanced thought that is not overly negative or positive.
In the example from CCI:
Hot thought: I will panic so much in my new job that I will get fired.
Overly optimistic thought: Everything will be fine, I'll never get anxious in my new job. It will all go swimmingly.
Balanced thought: I might be anxious in my new job, but that does not mean I'll have a panic attack. Even if I do, I have essential skills that will help me overcome it. It's normal for people to get anxious in new situations.
Help the other person by identifying their hot thoughts. Instead of providing an overly positive alternative, work with them to develop a balanced thought that they can focus on instead. It's often easier to do this from the outside, which is why your insight may be beneficial.
Anxiety is a severe and heavy feeling. Someone dealing with anxiety and stress may struggle to see the humor and feel enjoyment. There are several excellent strategies you can use to help the person relax and let go of some anxiety. Still, few will work as well as laughter. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter has several short and long term benefits for our health, including stress relief, improving mood, and improving your sense of humor³. By helping your loved one put humor on their mind, they will better handle unpredictable situations and stress. There are so many ways to bring laughter into the room, including:
Head to a comedy club/ performance
Watch a funny movie.
Pull a (harmless and small) prank.
Talk about funny memories.
Make jokes that are not overly insulting or offensive.
Post humorous content, like posters, comic strips, or funny photos around.
Avoidance behaviors are typical markers of anxiety that may cause the most impairment. According to a paper in Europe Pub Med Central, "it is the avoidance behaviors performed to keep purported harm at bay...that prevent the individual from living a normal life⁴."
Many times, people experiencing anxiety will engage in avoidance behaviors. It means that they avoid doing something they need to due to the anxiety. While this may decrease their anxiety at the moment, it leads to a snowball effect where that "thing" becomes more and more threatening and harder to overcome.
Examples of common avoidance behaviors include:
Making phone calls or sending necessary emails
Starting any intimidating task (an assignment, review, purchase, etc.)
Making requests (like asking for an off day).
Typically, when a person avoids an action, they will experience even more intrusive thoughts about it. Your role is to help talking through the steps to break the avoidance. Work with them to figure out what the first small step is, and be a part of this step. For example, if the person is avoiding starting a 20-page essay, you may discuss it with them to decide that the first step is choosing a topic. Work with them to break down options and discuss which case may work, and then narrow that topic down for the essay.
Help Your Loved One Seek Help
It's great to offer support and help your loved one through their battle with anxiety. However, you cannot take control of the situation. It can be tempting to take over that phone call for your friend or reassure them all of the time, but this will not help. It's effortless for support to turn into constant reassurance- seeking.
If the person in your life always asks for reassurance behind the scope of what is expected, you will need to set limits. That extent of anxiety may not be something that you can assist with. They may, in turn, need to see a licensed professional.
Many people struggling with mental health issues, including anxiety, to not seek the help they need. According to an author manuscript in HHS Public Access, "Low perceived need and attitudinal/evaluative barriers are the major barriers to treatment-seeking and staying in treatment⁵." People with anxiety may not seek the help they need because they do not realize the extent of their problem or other barriers. If you recognize that their concern is beyond what you can help with, you should encourage them to seek professional help.
As a close supporter in their lives, you may even offer to assist them with transportation or sit in on some of the sessions if they want you there. You can also work on all of the techniques above to continue supporting them outside of the sessions. Invite your loved one to tell you what they are learning about or working on if they want to. Keep optimistic about the insights and techniques that they know, and encourage them to parse out any issues with a treatment directly with their therapist. Even as your loved one seeks help, you can serve as a partner for anxiety-relieving techniques and therapy homework.
Getting help is often intimidating for people with anxiety, so you can significantly help them by encouraging them to get the help they need.
Before you can help someone with anxiety, you must take care of yourself too. Remember, your goal is not to cure their anxiety; it is just to help them as they work through it. Trying to take on too much is a risk factor for developing wellness issues of your own.
Numerous studies have addressed the mental and physical effects of informal caregiving. One manuscript in the HHS Public Access explains how stressful and burdensome caregiving can be, leading to chronic stress and worse mental and physical health⁶. Trying to help someone with anxiety can lead to those same results, especially if it is someone in your household.
Be aware of your health. It would be best if you always put your wellness first by making sure that you eat correctly, exercise regularly, and get enough sleep. Putting someone else's anxiety above your health is a recipe for disaster. Be mindful of how you treat yourself, and make sure to take care of yourself. If you feel supporting someone with anxiety is becoming too draining, take a step back and rest.
Always remember that the goal is to support the other person as a whole. Every aspect of your support does not have to be directly based on anxiety, and you can set limits. Having a chat about stressful situations for 20-30 minutes during a hike will be more beneficial for both of you than talking circles about if for hours.
It's not easy to help someone with anxiety. You may often feel like you don't know what to do or if it's helping. Just do your best, and remember to take care of yourself. In the end, the most important thing is to provide support in the form of love, compassion, and understanding. Taking care of yourself ensures you have a clear mind and approach to best help your loved one while staying as healthy as possible.
(1) Shohani, M et al (February 2018) The Effect of Yoga on Stress, Anxiety, and Depression in Women
(2) National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Meditation: In Depth
(3) Mayo Clinic (April 2019) Stress relief from laughter? It's no joke
(4)Beckers, T; Craske, MG (September 2017) Avoidance and decision making in anxiety: An introduction to the special issue
(5) Mojtabai, R et al (August 2011) Barriers to mental health treatment: results from the National Comorbidity Survey Replication
(6) Schulz, R; Sherwood, PR (September 2008) Physical and mental health effects of family caregiving