What to Do When Someone Close to You Is Struggling With Anxiety
April 14, 2021
Table of Contents
Do you want to be a more positive influence over the people you care about? You don’t know what to say or to do to better help them while struggling with anxiety? You may feel powerless and frustrated.
Here’s what you can do to help, even if you’re not a mental health professional.
Be a source of calm, patience and support
Anxiety makes people feel restless, and the last thing they need is someone who raises their voices or shows signs of impatience. As an anxiety warrior myself, a calm person who doesn’t appear disturbed by my anxiety-driven behaviours is such a great help.
When you remain calm and supportive, the anxious person will have a better chance to cool down and feel better. For example, I once lost my airplane tickets just a few hours before the flight. I panicked instantly and judged myself so violently that I wanted to hit my head of a wall to punish myself. I could not think of any solution and my mind refused to cooperate. Luckily, the person who was present with me did not panic, did not show signs of disappointment (didn’t use phrases like ‘I can’t believe you did that.’) and did not raise his voice (super important).
Create a safe space
Among the things you can do to help someone who struggles with anxiety, making the anxious person feel safe is worth mentioning. Safe to share their thoughts, their feelings and fears. Another circle of ‘safety’ that could help is empathy and tolerance. It’s important to make the anxious person feel accepted and not judged. A big source of anxiety is the fear of being criticized, judged, or ridiculed.
Learn as much as you can about anxiety
Educate yourself to be in a better position to help. If the person who is struggling with anxiety is very close to you (a parent, child, sibling, intimate partner etc) it is worth investing your time in learning as much as you can about anxiety.
The symptoms of anxiety differ from one person to another. It is helpful to familiarize yourself with the most common symptoms. Pay attention to how anxiety manifests in the person you care about. Learn from their anxiety driven behaviours so you can situate yourself in a better position to help.
Most Common Mental and Physical Symptoms of Anxiety
Extreme worry or fear that is difficult to control
Feeling like you are losing control
Sleep issues. Sleeping too much or too little.
Need for control / familiar situations
Brain fog and concentration problems
Fear of making a fool of yourself
Frequent crying, mood swings
Being easily startled
Loss of appetite or eating too much
Lack of speech coherence
Feeling overwhelmed even by minor tasks
Stressing for hours on things that take minutes to do
Difficulty asking for things or for help
Obsessively thinking the same thoughts over and over
Ringing in the ears
Shortness of breath or gasping for air
Having the mouth dry
Weak legs and constant fatigue
Chest and back pressure
Neck and shoulder pain or muscle tension
Headaches, migraines or extreme feeling of pressure around your head
Don’t compare the anxious person to other people. For example, avoid comments like ‘My life is harder than yours but I don’t complain.’ or ‘Others have it worse than you’.
Indeed, realizing that life situations could be so much worse than theirs can help the anxious person get a better perspective over their life. Still, if you are throwing the comparison game to make their anxiety feel less important, then the person you care about will feel hurt.
Give clear directions and be honest
People with anxiety care about the effect of their actions on other people. They try to avoid upsetting or bothering people at all costs. They would try to assume what are other people’s feelings and needs. Then once they got to a ‘conclusion’ they will try to change their behaviours so their family, friends and colleagues be happy with them.
Anxiety makes you feel you always walk on eggshells. And the more preoccupied is the anxious person by a certain person’s opinion, the more vigilant and careful of their actions will be. Still, ‘this vigilance’ has the opposite effect. Their minds are so obsessed with not annoying anyone that they end up forgetting doing certain chores, missing important tasks, or simply ending up doing something unpleasant because of their stress.
Therefore, it is important to provide explicit instructions and feedback, especially if you are living or working with the person you are trying to help. For example, say something like “It bothers me when you do this”. It gives the anxious person something clear and actionable that he or she can process. This way, the person will not repeat that behavior and will avoid a lot of anxiety and distress.
Let them know you are there
Having someone to just listen and not try to solve the issues helps a lot. It is difficult for a person with anxiety to open up and talk about it. They don’t want to burden others with their problems.
So if the anxious person is reluctant to open up to you, don’t take it as offence and don’t push the person to talk. Be gentle and tell often that you are there for them. Don’t withdraw your offer. The anxious person will come to you at the right time if she or he knows you are still there.
For an anxiety person, knowing that someone truly cares for them is more than helpful. It’s like a ray of light cast on a dark room.
WARNING. Anxiety may make the other person doubt again and think ‘I must bore or burden this friend with my problems. I should shut up.’ It will happen because anxiety is insidious. Your calm reminder that you are there and you are not bored or displeased with their talking will reassure the anxious person.
Don’t enable but don’t force
Anxiety makes the person avoid certain situations that trigger stress, fear or other unpleasant feelings. However, if you enable or help the anxious person to avoid those things, you only reinforce the fear and support the feedback loop.
Think about the things this person is avoiding. The fear may stop the anxious person from doing things like going out with friends, doing activities used to like or even asking for a cup of coffee at Starbucks. The best way to help is by encouraging (not forcing) this person to try gradual exposure. As he or she gets more used to the situation, anxiety falls and the same trigger will not cause as much distress as before.
Tell them it’s ok to feel the way they are feeling
You know the phrase ‘It’s ok not to be ok’. This sentence contains kind reassurance that the person who is suffering from anxiety has no reason to feel ashamed or weak or guilty. Anxiety is an internal psychological battle that can cause such a high level of distress that people need help. But when the anxious person is afraid that their mental struggle is a burden for others, then withdrawal appears. The anxious person starts to hide the genuine feelings and pretend everything is ok while behind the curtains there is a lot of self-criticism and toxic self-talk.
If you have authority over the anxious person you want to help (e.g. a child, an employee) then your praises will make the person feel better. Some of them will not show that your words influenced them, while others will say thank you and appreciate your kind words or encouragement.
It is important to reward and recognize someone’s worth. Anxious persons crave reassurance and validation. They need to know they matter. So you will not bore them if you give praise often. Obviously these must be honest words and not said just to comfort the anxious person.
Help them see their strengths outside of their anxiety. Reassure them the positives about them.
Avoid saying these comments
It’s all in your head. – Most anxious people know it is just in their heads, but it doesn’t make it less frightening or disturbing.
Get over it
You are getting anxious over nothing – Nothing may seem wrong from your point of view, but the person struggling with anxiety it is in a unique situation. Saying this invalidates their feelings and makes them want to hide their authentic emotions the next time.
Everything is going to be fine.
Stop acting like that. It’s weird.
I know exactly how you feel – No; you don’t. You don’t know how the other feels, even if you experienced a mental illness before. Anxiety and any other mental disorder are experienced differently by each of us, and even if symptoms may be similar, the coping skills, the environment and each personality will differ.
You haven’t even matured yet. When you grow up, you’d realize that all your feelings are for no reason.
This differs from the version of ‘Have you tried this or that?’. When someone is offering ideas on what the anxious person could do, sometimes it is perceived as dismissive. However, if you propose to do these things with the person, you are trying to help the perception changes.
For example, try a meditation exercise with this person, or go for a walk in a park together.
Not only you will benefit as well, but the other person will feel supported. This is because you don’t just say ‘Go for a walk or try meditation’. Instead, you are joining this person and your presence will motivate him or her to see if it works.
The key idea of CBT is that distorted thinking patterns cause feelings that generate anxiety (fear, panic, shame, guilt etc) and then it influences your actions.
What you can do for the anxious person you are trying to help is to challenge their thoughts. By challenge I don’t mean saying: ‘It’s all in your head’. What you can do instead is to propose doing an audit together.
Determine first the main thought that causes anxiety to this person by asking what is the primary source of distress. Then once you asked him or her what are the thoughts that provoke anxiety, take a paper and a pen and go through the following questions:
Is there substantial evidence for this thought?
Is there evidence that contradicts the thought?
If you look at the situation in a positive light, how would this be different?
Will this matter a year from now?
This little exercise helps because it creates a distance between the thought and the thinker. Also, it makes the anxious person shift the perspective and see a certain situation under a different light.
Know when to seek help
The suggestions above are those things that you can do to help someone with anxiety without being a mental health professional. However, if the anxiety is so extreme that causes withdrawal, depression or even suicide thoughts, seek help.
There are 3 main types of professional help:
Free (NHS, various charities and organizations, support groups, helplines). A thorough list of free sources you can find here.
Through the work space (some workplaces have a dedicated person who provides mental health support to employees).
There are many things you can do to support someone who experiences anxiety. Still, keep in mind that the extent of what you can do is determined by how close you are to the person you are trying to help.
The approach will vary because different relationships allow a different level of intimacy. For example, if you are witnessing anxiety in one of your work colleagues, act with caution. That person may be reluctant to open up to someone who is not as close as a good friend or a relative. But you still can offer indirect support by being patient, kind and ready to support the person dealing with anxiety.