Chances are high that if you yourself don’t have anxiety, you know someone who does. You may find yourself wondering how to help someone with anxiety. How can you support them when they’re feeling anxious? When they’re having a “down” day? When you yourself just can’t understand why they are so worried about “something that will never happen?”
As someone who deals with anxiety, I’ve had a lot of experience interacting with folks while in the middle of an anxiety spiral. I’ve had great experiences with friends and family that have left me lifted up and in a better place. I’ve also had less than ideal experiences where I leave an interaction feeling worse than when I entered it.
From my experience, here are seven ways to help someone with anxiety – and a bonus way to help yourself.
It’s hard for someone with anxiety to open up about their struggles. I’m sure I’m not the only one who tries to manage it on my own. I like to think I’m “stronger than my anxiety,” an attitude I’ve learned the hard way isn’t helpful. When a friend or family member shares their anxiety with you, the best thing you can do is listen. Don’t interrupt, don’t offer up opinions, don’t try to tell them something like “you’re worrying about nothing.” Just listen. Let them talk. Sometimes talking out loud helps us process what we’re worried about. Remember, it’s difficult enough for us to say “hey, I’m struggling today.” Listening is one of the best things you can do to help someone with anxiety.
It’s a natural response to tell someone with anxiety that they’re “worried about nothing” or “that’s not going to happen.” But I assure you, the worries we are experiencing are very real to us. Hear their fears (aka, listen) and talk about them. Ask good questions. “Why do you feel this way?” or “If this were to happen, what is the worst thing that could happen to you?” Just feeling heard – and perhaps having someone to work through scenarios with – can do wonders to ease anxiety.
DON’T JUMP TO SOLUTIONS.
It might be your natural instinct to offer up solutions. Your friend tells you she’s losing sleep over perceived difficulties in a relationship. Rather than listen to her fears – which are very real to her – you start offering up solutions: “Ask them!” “Take some time apart!” “Break up with him!” Most of the time, those solutions aren’t what someone with anxiety is looking for. They want to be heard (listen) and they may just need to talk it out. If they ask for solutions, give them. You can also ask them: “Do you want my advice?” If they say yes, proceed. If they say no, let it go.
I’ve had a knock on my door and opened it to find a DoorDash delivery of cookies. I’ve also heard my phone chime and had a friend venmo me money for coffee or a milkshake. Each scenario lifted my mood and reminded me that I’m not alone. If someone you love is feeling the anxiety, think about something you can do to cheer them up, whether it’s a $5 Venmo for Starbucks, their favorite pastry, or even offering to take their kids for an afternoon. It will mean the world to them – and again, remind them they aren’t alone.
DON’T MAKE IT ABOUT YOU.
When someone with anxiety is sharing their feelings with you, don’t take over. Don’t say “Oh! One time I had this thing happen to me…” Your friend or family member who is opening up to you doesn’t want to hear you tell a story about you. I’ve been guilty of thinking I’m helping someone by sharing my personal experience, but in reality, they needed to talk about them, not hear my “one time at band camp” story. Let them have the spotlight. And again, listen.
It’s a fine line between being a compassionate friend and an enabling friend. When someone with anxiety is spiraling, don’t encourage it – don’t say things that might trigger a deeper spiral and make matters worse. While you shouldn’t tell them to “toughen up and get over it,” you also shouldn’t poke the bear, so to speak. Be supportive, but don’t push them over the cliff. Be mindful of your words.
ASK HOW YOU CAN HELP.
Perhaps the best thing you can do for someone with anxiety – right along with that whole listen thing I keep coming back to – is to ask how you can help them. They may give you a blank stare at first because it’s not a question us anxiety sufferers hear often. But ask. Ask them how you can help them with their anxiety and when they tell you, follow through. Asking and following through can be game changers.
TAKE CARE OF YOU.
Perhaps a little counterintuitive, but make sure you’re prioritizing your own well-being. When someone you love and care about is dealing with a mental health crisis, it can be draining on those around them. The saying “you can’t pour from an empty cup” is true. You can’t be the support system your loved one needs if you’re barely hanging on yourself. It’s okay to have some boundaries of your own in place. In fact, it’s necessary.
There you have it – seven ways to help someone with anxiety, plus a bonus way to help yourself. If you have any additional ways, leave them in the comments!