Having anxiety is tough. It’s also hard to be on the sidelines when you care about someone with anxiety. The tricky thing is that often, strong anxiety actually makes it difficult for the anxious person to even know what they need from you. Anxiety can make you jump to conclusions and act in ways that you don’t want to act. So, it means the world to people that have anxiety when there are people in their life that are willing to make an effort and be a great support. In this post, I’m going to break down five great ways that you can be a great support to the people in your life that have anxiety.
Remind them that they are safe
At it’s core, anxiety was developed through evolution to keep us safe. It is related to the fight or flight response that primes the body for action by raising heart rate, speeding up breathing, tensing muscles, and slowing down less necessary functions like digestion. In addition to these physical symptoms that can pop up with or without warning, anxiety also tells you lies about how likely it is that something bad will happen to you. This can lead to avoidance of those things that anxiety tells you worry about, which in turn makes anxiety bigger and bigger.
The thing is, anxiety itself is not dangerous. For those with chronic anxiety, it typically isn’t even trying to signal the presence of a real threat. It’s just an overzealous little guard dog that wants you to feed it all the cookies and let it run your life. Even though it can feel like anxiety is going to give you a heart attack, that will not happen.
One amazing way of being there for the person in your life with anxiety is to gently remind them of this fact. You definitely don’t want to fall into “it’s all in your head” territory because that is going to get you punched in the face. Rather, you can simply remind them that they are safe and that these feelings will pass in time. Here’s what you could say:
“Hey… I can tell you are feeling super heightened and anxious. You can get through this. I know it sucks, but you are safe. This isn’t going to hurt you and nothing bad is going to happen right now. It’s going to be okay.”
Give space or give comfort
The experience of anxiety is a little different for everyone, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to helping someone feel better when they are in the midst of feeling strong anxiety. As I said above, sometimes their anxious brain doesn’t even let them process what they need or what would be helpful in the moment.
However, one thing that most people experiencing anxiety will be able to tell you is whether they need comfort or space. Some people don’t want to feel like they have to manage your feelings and expectations too. They just want some space to get through the terrible feelings they are having without an audience. For others, they might need someone to sit with them, a strong hug, or someone to attend to their basic needs like food and water. Here’s how you can ask:
“I’m sorry that you’re feeling so bad. I want to help. Would it be better for me to stay and try to help out right now or should I give you some space for a bit?”
Educate yourself about anxiety
One of the most frustrating parts about having anxiety is how difficult it can be to explain what it’s like to live with anxiety. This is probably why my anxiety letter is by far my most popular piece of content. The last thing someone that is struggling with anxiety wants to do is to have to educate those around them about anxiety in order to get help. When they are feeling up to it, they may want to let you in on exactly what anxiety is like for them, but there is no reason they need to walk you through the fundamentals. There are tons of great resources for that. Here are a few that you can start with:
- Hundreds of books on the subject
- Kati Morton on generalized anxiety
- Letter to those that don’t understand anxiety
Be their exposure buddy
Avoidance is the fuel of anxiety. Anxiety causes people to worry about potential scenarios that may or may not be close to reality. In turn, this fear causes them to avoid situations that would bring about anxiety. This is called avoidance. Avoidance makes anxiety worse because it essentially proves it right. Anxiety tries to tell you that situations are dangerous and when you allow those false alarms to make you avoid these potentially scary situations, you show anxiety that it is doing a good job by keeping you “safe”.
The antidote to this pattern of avoidance is called exposure. Most successful types of anxiety treatment have a strong element of exposure work. There are multiple ways to go about this, but one of the most successful is to gradually work your way up to the feared situation through a series of smaller steps. This can be called gradual exposure or a courage ladder. If someone has developed a fear of leaving their house and would like to be able to go to a friend’s wedding, they will start will smaller steps like spending time on their front porch, walking down the street, walking around the block, going to a small public gathering place, going to a coffee shop, and eventually working their way to the real thing.
Exposure work can be intense at times and it can also be a bit boring. Offering to be a part of the process and join them on some of their exposure activities could be a very meaningful way to show up and be present. Here’s how you could offer:
“I know that you have been trying to work your way up to flying out for Susie’s wedding. If you ever need some company when you are building up to it, I’d be happy to join you!”
Follow up and remind them that you are there
Struggling with anxiety can feel very lonely at times. Anxiety can make you act in ways that are not totally in line with who you want to be. It can make you feel worthless and out of place. When someone offers to help, anxiety often tells you lies that the person is just trying to be nice and that they don’t actually care.
One way to break through the noise of these negative thoughts and assumptions that anxiety generates is simply to be consistent and keep following up with the person in your life that has anxiety. Let them know that you are still there for them no matter what. They may or may not be able to believe you in the moment. That’s okay. Stick to your message. Here’s how you could let them know:
“Seriously, it’s all good. I don’t blame you at all for struggling. I’m still here for you. I’m not going anywhere.”
That’s all, folks! If you’ve read this far I want to say thank you. I’m glad that you are out there trying to be a better ally to the anxious person in your life. Please let them or me know if you have any questions!