How to Help When Someone You Love is Anxious

February 20, 2014

Last week we posted a great article on Facebook about what NOT to say to someone who is anxious. Some feedback we received was, “Love the article, now tell us what we SHOULD say to our anxious friend/partner/family member.”

So we asked our therapists to come up with some ideas and here is what they had to say:

Rather than assuming, ask: “Is there anything I can do to help?” Stay calm yourself. “Calm” can be contagious. Avoid long-winded analysis. Keep your responses simple: “Wow” or “That sounds stressful” or “Have you thought about what you want to do?” Be respectful. Be a serious listener because their anxiety is real to them. Joke only if they do first.

Do focus on your own physical reaction. Before you respond to an anxious person, take a moment and intentionally slow your own breathing down. Anxiety can have a spill-over effect: when we are around anxious people, we can tend to get anxious ourselves and then, change our behavior (such as becoming overly supportive or protective or reactive), and without intending it, make the whole situation worse! Responding from a more grounded place is a great first step.

Psychologist Rebecca Hart, PhD suggests: One idea is to remind them that they have been anxious before and gotten through it okay. Using a particular phrase a friend/partner likes can make this easier to hear. For kids, I like to tell them “tell those worry bugs to buzz/bug off!” or “Those worry bugs want you to worry about something you don’t have to be scared of, tell them to come back when there is real danger.”

Take a few breathes and allow the person to talk uninterrupted for a brief period of time and then repeat back what you are hearing them say. “So it sounds like you are really worried about your job. Am I understanding you?” Often people will calm down once they feel heard. Also asking them if they want advice or for your just to listen. Sometimes we want help out of the mud puddle we have fallen into and sometimes we want someone to get in with us. It is an important difference.

Family therapist Linda Cathey, MEd says: Ask them what you can do to help them feel more soothed. Then offer to breath slowly with them for a brief period to help them slow themselves and feel supported.

Lend a non-judgmental ear. Listen to your friend/partner’s worries knowing that they are real to them. Show genuine compassion for the tough times and celebration for your loved one’s improvement. Your support matters.

Suggest doing something calm, relaxing, or fun together (taking a walk, going to a yoga class, watching a movie, etc.).

Understand that anxiety is often a response to a stressful situation and makes sense in the context it occurs in. Understand that it’s no ones “fault”, there is no one to blame, sometimes anxiety just happens. Often anxiety comes with excess energy (in the form of nervousness, fidgetiness, restlessness) and asking an anxious person to go for a walk or other activity can be very helpful. Helping a person cope through relaxation can also be helpful. Things such as a long bath, a massage, a conversation can go a long way. Laughter can be the best medicine. If the anxious person usually enjoys humor, tell them a joke, watch a funny movie or recollect a funny time together.

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