Anxiety has many forms – in fact, there are five sub-categories, each presenting a different variation of the many symptoms. Over 44 million adults in America suffer from some form of anxiety. Helping someone with anxiety can be difficult, but there are a few things you can do to help them cope with the day-to-day trials of anxiety.
If you’re reading this article, you’re already working on this step. Congratulations!
Do some research online, contact professional services (there are helplines available through most psychiatric and health organizations) and familiarize yourself with the symptoms of each possible version of anxiety.
According to Mental Health America, the subcategories of anxiety include…
- panic disorder
- obsessive-compulsive disorder
- post-traumatic stress disorder
- generalized anxiety disorders
General symptoms to look for in a loved one you think may be suffering from anxiety include…
- feelings of impending doom
- elevated heart rate
- sweating, chills and/or trembling
- shortness of breath
- chest or abdominal pain
- tightness in the throat and/or trouble swallowing
The overarching issue with anxiety is that it causes panic, fear and uncertainty. These feelings make it difficult for your loved one to cope with their anxiety and deal with people.
People suffering from anxiety have a difficult time seeing the positive. If they improve or make progress in their daily life, they won’t be able to see this. Instead, they will focus on the negative. For this reason, it is important to let them know when you notice a change in their behavior or an improvement in their daily life. Be proud of them, and show them how proud you are.
Helping someone with anxiety encompasses all aspects of communication from verbal praise to body language. Here are a few key things to remember when you’re trying to encourage someone with anxiety:
- Keep your facial expressions positive. Anxiety causes people to interpret even the smallest negative expressions in the worst way possible.
- Avoid the word “don’t.” Even for someone not suffering from anxiety, a statement like “don’t sweat the small stuff” or “don’t let it get to you” will make them feel like they’re doing something wrong. “Don’t” is a negative term that can enhance anxiety.
- Remind them that they’ve won this battle before. “You can overcome this, like you did (insert previous event here).” Approaching the situation in this way reminds them that the difficulties they’re facing won’t last forever, and they’ll make it through this trial too.
Everyone, anxiety or no, feels better when they know that they have someone who is always there for them. People with anxiety find it helpful and comforting as well. Here are a few things you can try:
- Try to be there as much as possible. Tell them they can contact you at any time, no matter where you are.
- Offer to accompany them to their doctor or health professional’s office and to other appointments.
- Spend as much time with them as possible (and encourage friends and family to do so as well).
Anxiety can be debilitating at times, and knowing someone is there for them through the worst of times as well as the best can make all the difference.
Listen without Judgement
Listening to someone with anxiety without judging them on how they act or react to situations is just as important as being available for them. In fact, the two go hand in hand. Lending your ear, as the saying goes, is important, even if they repeat the same fears over and over. Talking about their experiences helps them face their fears and identify the biggest hurdles in their day-to-day life.
It can be easy to offer suggestions that seem helpful but aren’t. When you’re responding to someone with anxiety…
- avoid statements like “just deal” and “everything’s going to be fine”;
- be empathetic;
- use phrases like “That’s terrible, I’m sorry” and “It’s ok to feel that way”;
- avoid comparing your stress to theirs (Comparing stress trivializes their pain);
- if you feel like you’re going to use a situational comparison, refocus the conversation instead; and
- help them see the positive aspects of the situation.
This approach acknowledges and validates their feelings without making them feel like they’re failing in some way.
Exercise and a healthy lifestyle are two natural combatants to anxiety. According to Julie Warren, in her article “Does Exercise Release a Chemical in the Brain?”, exercise releases different chemicals in the brain like endorphins, serotonin and brain-derived neurotrophic factors, a neurotransmitter that reduces the symptoms of depression and enhances brain health and memory.
Take advantage of these natural chemicals by taking your friend with anxiety out for exciting activities or even something as simple as a walk outside. In addition to the natural brain chemicals, these activities create new memories that help people with anxiety cope when things get tough. Getting out and about is also a good alternative to saying something like “calm down.” The exercise will help them calm down without you having to say it.
A healthy diet and lifestyle, which includes eating and sleeping well, is another aspect of staying active. Remember to avoid alcohol; it may seem like a solution, but it only makes for experiences that can be negative.
Forgive & Forget
This is probably the hardest of all the suggestions listed. People who suffer from anxiety can be quick to irritation, can get defensive and hostile, and can have a tendency to interpret words and actions as a personal attack. They can’t control their emotions or immediate reactions. It can be easy to react to their hostility and irritation in kind, but try not to react this way. Instead, forgive them, and let them know that you understand. Forgive them for their outbursts, and accept them for who they are, as they are.
Try not to ask “what did I do wrong?” as they often won’t be able to answer this – and this question may make them feel worse. If you feel that you’re having trouble forgiving them, write them a letter. Reading will give them time to reflect on how you feel without the feeling of confrontation.
Living with anxiety is challenging enough without having to deal with the loneliness, judgement and misunderstanding that accompany it. Helping someone with anxiety requires a lot of patience, but if you follow the above tips and advice, you could give someone the gift of friendship and happiness.
Do you know someone who suffers from anxiety? Is there anything you do that helps them deal with the challenges of daily life? Share in the comments!