Anxiety is a beast. It can isolate and torture sufferers, induce overwhelming panic attacks, and quite frankly, wreck lives. And it affects one in five Americans. So it should come as no surprise that I have two close family members that suffer from it daily. The real question is how to help someone with anxiety, because the anxiety of my loved ones was causing me to feel defeated and helpless.
So I dove into the latest research. I compared everything I found from the top psychologists and behavioral therapists in the world, and made a list of the advice offered most consistently across the board.
Want to learn how to help someone with anxiety? Then start here.
How to Help Someone With Anxiety Through Education
- Learn as much as you can about anxiety. The more you know, the better you can understand where your friend’s anxiety-driven words and actions are coming from, and how to best help them.
- Learn the different ways anxiety can manifest. Anxiety triggers our fear response, which signals our bodies to either fight, flight, or freeze. Everyone will respond to this trigger differently. Some will freeze or withdraw from whatever is causing them stress. Others will fight, and may seem easily irritated or defensive for no apparent reason. When you can recognize your friend’s irritability was triggered by anxiety, you can more easily find compassion for them.
- Ask your friend specifically how you can help. Don’t do your research and apply what you’ve learned to help your friend without ever asking for their input. Everyone responds to anxiety a little differently, so everyone will have a different idea of how their family and friends can best help them.
How to Help Someone With Anxiety Through Love and Encouragement
- Build them up. A struggle with anxiety often starts with low self-esteem. And many that battle anxiety have a lowered self-esteem because of it. So build your friend up. Compliment them. Encourage them. Affirm them. Communicate clearly that you don’t think any less of them because of their anxiety.
- Be patient. Anxiety sufferers can sometimes sound like a broken record, rehashing the same fears over and over. Hear them out, and keep patiently repeating the same reassurance. Your ongoing support will act as a constant lifeboat in the midst of ever-turbulent waters. Keep in mind that it’s challenging to find a healthy balance between exhibiting patience and pushing them to action. Finding that balance will likely require some trial and error.
- Celebrate the small victories. Overcoming anxiety is a long, slow, and difficult road for most. Making a big deal about the steps in between will help to encourage them to continue moving forward. Small victories may include attending a counseling session, applying something they’ve learned from a session, or navigating a panic attack better than the last time.
- Praise and reinforce healthy behaviors, rather than criticizing unhealthy behaviors. Anxiety sufferers are well aware of their fears and avoidance behavior. A friend’s confirmation that they’re failing, or ruining something for everyone else, will likely discourage their efforts instead of encouraging them.
- Stay calm. In the middle of an anxious episode, your friend needs you to exhibit a calm and rational demeanor. Don’t join in the panic. Help to introduce peace into the situation.
- Don’t patronize your friend’s fears. Although you know their fear is unwarranted, it feels overwhelmingly real to them. A better approach than saying, “Suck it up!” or “It’s not that big of a deal,” is to provide encouragement. Provide some empathy and understanding, and remind them of a previous victory against their anxiety. They’ve done it before, and can do it again!
How to Help Someone With Anxiety Through Mindset Readjustment
- Normalize anything you can. An anxiety sufferer may experience a headache and assume they have a brain tumor. By reassuring them that you often have headaches, that allergens are high and may be contributing, or that this is a normal occurrence for lots of people, you may help to put their mind at ease.
- Help them to moderate their thinking. Anxiety often causes people to jump straight to the worst-case scenario. For example, if their spouse doesn’t answer the phone, they must be dead. One effective cognitive therapy technique is to ask them to answer three questions: (1) What’s the worst that could happen? (2) What’s the best that could happen? (3) What’s the most realistic or likely to happen?
- Don’t reassure your friend that their fears will never become a reality. A more effective approach is to encourage them that even if their fears came to pass, they are completely capable of navigating and coping with the situation.
How to Help Someone With Anxiety Through Practical Actions
- Exercise together. Exercise has been shown to effectively manage anxiety symptoms. Offer to go for a walk with them, or take a class together at a gym.
- Practice meditation or breathing exercises together. This is another anxiety management strategy that can be done with a partner.
- Help them to break free of avoidance behavior. Anxiety can cause your friend to avoid things they have to do, then the avoidance itself increases their anxiety. Help them to talk through the steps they need to take, and then encourage them to take the first small step. If possible, complete the task with them to help them gain a little momentum. But be careful not to take over completely, as this can feed their avoidance and prevent them from pushing through it. (Use this free printable to help them organize and attack that to-do list!)
- Help them to stay connected to the positive parts of their identity. Anxiety can isolate your friend and tank their self-esteem. Are they an avid runner? A talented painter? Do they have Applebee’s patrons on their feet after their riveting karaoke performance? Encourage their interests and hobbies, and participate if possible.
- Help them get the help they need. Anxiety rarely resolves itself, so your friend will need to be actively working toward overcoming their disorder. The most evidence-backed treatment for anxiety is cognitive behavioral therapy. Help them find a cognitive behavioral therapist, and then keep the conversation open about what they’re learning, and how you can help. Maintain a positive focus by asking what’s working well for them. If some of the management techniques they’re learning aren’t working for them, then encourage them to discuss it with their therapist. There are a lot of different approaches to anxiety management, and finding the right fit often requires a little experimentation.
Don’t Forget to Help Yourself Too
- Don’t allow your friend’s anxiety to consume you too. It’s very easy to get sucked in by anxiety when you’re regularly affected by it. And you won’t be very effective at helping someone with their anxiety if you’re in an unhealthy place yourself. So be careful to preserve your own life and interests, maintain your own support system, set personal boundaries, and seek professional help for yourself if necessary.
Wrap It Up
Anxiety is a beast, but it doesn’t have to be a life sentence. Because now you know how to help someone with anxiety!
You can help them through self-education, love and encouragement, mindset readjustment, and by taking a few practical actions. So let’s be a lifeline to our family and friends, and help to end anxiety’s reign for good!
P.S. Want to help someone with anxiety tackle their to-do list? Nab our free worksheet to help them trim down their to-do list to only the essentials, and then prioritize and schedule what’s left. Get it here!
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