Dealing with anxiety can be extremely difficult, and when a friend or loved one is suffering from it we want to do everything in our power to help them through it. It’s often hard to know what to do or say, because anxiety and panic may feel irrational and can’t necessarily be solved easily.
Here are seven ways you can help a friend with anxiety:
Use the Right Words
Often, the words that spring to mind when someone is having an anxiety attack are exactly what may be difficult for the person to hear. Our first impulse may be to tell them to “Calm down” or assume that “this isn’t a big deal.” The problem is that these words could dismiss the person’s feelings. In that moment, it may feel like a big deal, and by telling them to calm down it might sound like you’re not taking their experience seriously. It’s good to understand that anxiety isn’t rational, and things like “you’re making a mountain out of a molehill” or “there’s nothing to be afraid of” could sound to the sufferer like a person doesn’t recognize the problems their friend is experiencing. The truth is that they may be afraid, and to them it may be a big deal.
So what do you say instead? A great approach is to acknowledge their fears and validate them with your words. For example, you could say “I know that you’re scared, but I’m here and we can get through this.” Your friend’s feelings are best validated when they feel free to share them and when you can encourage your friend to work through them.
Stay Calm and Listen
If a friend has an anxiety attack, they can often feel quite upset, and it may be easy for you to feel alarmed by their demeanour. They may panic, and you want to help them and it’s natural for your emotions to go to the level of the person you’re empathizing with. Or, it can also be natural to feel upset with the person and your first instinct may be to ask why they can’t calm down, or underestimate how they’re feeling. It’s important that you stay calm, despite what your friend is going through, so that you can be a shoulder to lean on and work through the feelings they’re coping with.
As part of that it’s important to listen. They may have a lot of worries and fears, and listening to them without judging them is a vital step in helping them process their emotions.
Instead of potentially arguing or discounting any feelings, there are exercises you can do to help your friend manage their anxiety. Some of these are:
Telling them to take long, slow breaths
- Ask them to count backward from 100
- Help them get comfortable
- Move them to a less intimidating place/help them leave the situation
- Help them feel grounded by asking them to name five things they can hear, see, smell, and feel
- Reassure them by sitting with them, holding their hand, or telling them that you won’t leave
- If the symptoms don’t get better after 20-30 minutes, offer to get them help. If the symptoms are severe and you’re worried that they’re in danger, have them call the Canadian mental health hotline at 1-833-456-4566, or text 45645. (https://www.crisisservicescanada.ca/en/)
Don’t Be Distant
Sometimes you might feel like you need to give an anxious person their space. Often this might be because they feel uncomfortable and want to be left alone. Sometimes it’s good to be alone and have time with your own thoughts to deal with your anxiety, but be careful not to leave them alone to get worse and worse.
Distraction Can Help
When someone is having an anxiety attack their mind may be spiralling around certain unhealthy thoughts and worries, and it can be helpful to distract them with something else–humor is often a great distraction. Trying to get someone’s mind off their worries can break them out of the prison that their emotions have trapped them in. If you can’t use humor have them talk about their day–have them tell you what they had for breakfast, or who they’ve talked to, or what movies they’ve recently seen. Getting them talking about something other than their worries can be just the thing they need.
Often, a friend with anxiety may act aloof and cold and may seem like they don’t want you around, but inside they may be begging you to stay and simply can’t articulate it.
Understand That They Might Not Know What They Need
You want to help them and you’re willing to help them, and it can often be very frustrating that they can’t tell you what will solve the problem. When someone is feeling anxiety, they may not know what sparked the attack and they may not know how to get out of it. The reason for this is that there very often is no simple answer or solution, so there’s no way that either of you could know what it is or how to achieve it.
Instead of asking them to give you the answer to the problem, listen to them, calm them, and wait with them. Spend time together, and understand that they may not know how to fix it.
Take Care of Yourself
In all of this it can be easy to get overwhelmed. When you have empathy for someone else’s pain it’s easy to get swept away in the negative emotions that they’re experiencing. Try not to allow yourself to go down the wrong road of taking all the burden on yourself.
It may be necessary to set clear boundaries for how and when you can help them. You might say to them that they can call you anytime–except during work. If you let their anxiety affect your world you can experience some negativity as well.
Keep enjoying social activities and hobbies that you love, and make time for your own self care. If you start to feel yourself getting into an unhealthy mindset, don’t be afraid to reach out to someone else to share your feelings. You don’t have to take all of this on your own shoulders. You may even want to talk to an anxiety therapist or call a hotline yourself if you’re feeling overwhelmed.