How to Help a Friend With Anxiety

It's important to learn about anxiety to help someone whose is suffering. This includes understanding what anxiety is and that everyone's experience is a little different. Anxiety can be defined as feelings of worry, concern, nervousness, unease, and/or tension about the future. This includes the near and far future. It can be, but is not always, associated with an outcome (e.g., finding employment) or a situation (e.g., living in a damaging environment). The difference between anxiety and stress is that anxiety lacks a specific stressor, everything triggers these feelings of unease. When it is stress, once the situation is resolved or the event has passed, the feelings fade. Here are some tips to help a friend with anxiety:

1) Listen to what they have to say.

When someone mentions they are anxious, it is best to allow them to talk about it. You can ask: “How exactly are you feeling?” “Do you have any idea why you are feeling this way?” What can help you right now?” These are open-ended questions; they give individuals an opportunity to adequately express problems and concerns, and they allow individuals to steer the discussion. After asking one or more of these questions, let your loved one talk about how he/she feels. Remember to be an attentive listener and not to diminish or invalidate how they are feeling. This is easy, but it helps individuals express their feelings and release some tension. It can also help them understand how they feel and why they feel this way. It can be helpful to assist them in rationalizing their thoughts. Be sure when you are doing this to be non-judgemental. You goal is to get them to question their own thinking, not to have them feel like they have to justify it to you.

2) Give them space.

If they are struggling with anxiety in a given moment, but they do not want to talk about it, then accept this. It is important not to continue pressing them to discuss their problem, because this can exacerbate the issue and cause a panic attack. This is difficult because we often want to help as much as we possibly can. However, we must understand that smothering someone with “help” can actually have the opposite effect.

3) Display forgiveness.

Individuals who suffer from anxiety worry about many different things – perhaps, even you. We don’t want our loved ones to fear making us upset. Letting them know we accept them and understand them may help to sooth their worries. Let them know they are not alone, and learn to forgive their behaviours.

4) Be calm when they are facing anxiety or having a panic attack.

A lot of the time, we freak out when someone is having a panic attack or displaying discomfort of any kind. We may show our panic and confusion by speaking too quickly, raising our voices, or through altered facial expressions (e.g., wide eyes). This can make our loved ones feel even worse by increasing their anxiety levels. Instead, we can display calmness by doing the opposite of what we usually do. For example, we can speak at a slow pace, keep our voices low, and maintain a relaxed face. This will aid in calming the anxious individual and can help them cope with their attack.

If your loved one is having a panic attack our first instinct is to tell them to calm down. Often, however, this will make them feel like it is their fault and that they are in complete control. In reality, having a panic attack is the opposite of being in control. Instead, try encouraging them to breathe. There are many simple breathing exercises that can help slow their heart rate and end the panic attack.

5) Distract them.

Distracting your loved one can help take their mind off of what is making them anxious, and it can prevent them from overthinking a situation. Please note that this is different than encouraging avoidance behaviour, where individuals avoid what makes them anxious (e.g., crowds). Instead, this provides individuals with a momentary distraction to help them avoid a panic attack.

We can distract them by:

a) Asking for their help with something, which will make them feel needed. For example, you can ask them to help you set the table or move dirty dishes to another room, or you can ask them to help you solve a riddle. Again, this will shift their focus but for a longer period of time.

b) Doing an activity together. For example, you can take your loved one to a yoga class, go for a run, play a game together, or go for a walk. Later, when they feel calmer, you can listen to their situation, and you can talk it through with them in a solution-oriented way.

The most important thing to remember is that doing something is always better than doing nothing. Everything helps, as it shows care and concern. In the end, you help your loved one by making them feel loved.