During the COVID-19 pandemic, rates of anxiety and depression have skyrocketed.¹ More than 18% of the US adult population² experiences some type of anxiety disorder at any given time, which may continue to rise as a result of ongoing pandemic-related stressors and challenges.
Chances are, you have a friend, family member, or colleague with anxiety. There are a number of ways you can provide them with the support they need.
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To support a loved one in your life who has anxiety, start by getting to know how anxiety works and how it impacts their life.
Everyone experiences some level of anxiety from time to time, but someone with an anxiety disorder lives with significantly elevated levels. They may feel unable to turn off their anxious thoughts, be consumed by worries, and even feel frozen by their feelings. It can be hard to understand how anxiety impacts a person’s life when you haven’t experienced severe anxiety yourself.
Anxiety occurs as a natural response to stress. It is normal to feel a little stressed and anxious about starting a new job or meeting someone for the first time. People who suffer from anxiety disorders, on the other hand, can feel severely anxious about those activities to the point where it interferes with their daily functioning. Some types of anxiety can make it feel impossible to even leave your house (agoraphobia).
Anxiety triggers the body's fight-or-flight response which leads to an increase in stress hormones and physiological responses, such as increased heart rate, sweating, and feeling on edge. In fact, anxiety has many physical signs and symptoms.
Chronic or clinical levels of anxiety can often make someone feel stuck in this state, which negatively impacts their ability to sleep, think clearly, or feel in control of their thoughts and feelings.
Another common misconception about anxiety is that it needs to occur in response to an event. However, people with anxiety disorders can feel elevated levels of anxiety and stress seemingly out of the blue and in response to situations that would not normally generate such an anxious response.
Because of this, it isn’t helpful to remind people why they “shouldn’t” feel stressed. Instead, if you notice someone struggling with feelings of anxiety, try to be there for them. Offer a compassionate, non-judgmental ear and listen to what they are dealing with.
When you have a more solid understanding of anxiety and the challenges it can pose, you may find that it's easier to support a loved one who is experiencing severe anxiety and provide them with the support they need.
Anxiety disorders are complex and the symptoms may look different depending on the person, situation, and environment. While some people can become withdrawn, others may become irritable or increasingly defensive³, snapping at you over what seems like something minor.
Anxiety looks different in different people, so get to know how it manifests in your friend or family member. Ask them – when they are calm, not anxious – if they know which of their behaviors most likely stem from anxiety and how you can best help them cope during these situations.
By recognizing these behaviors, you can often change how you react to them. Instead of finding a particular behavior frustrating and reacting defensively, you may find yourself better able to show compassion and support during those difficult periods.
Engaging in conversation is the key to supporting someone who suffers from anxiety. If your loved one has already admitted to feelings of anxiety or an anxiety disorder diagnosis, the door is already open for you to gently talk to them about their symptoms.
Ask them how their anxiety feels to them and how you can show support. They may already be working on coping strategies with a therapist that you can work on with them.
Some people with anxiety benefit from specific, task-based assistance: role-playing a difficult situation they're gearing up for, breaking a task down into more manageable steps, or providing actionable advice.
Others, however, may prefer emotional-based support: letting them know that you're there and will work it through with them, or that you aren't going to abandon them. Always lend a listening ear, create a safe space, and see how you can help your friend or loved one cope better.
There's a delicate balance between helping a loved one with anxiety and potentially making the anxiety worse.⁴
When you love someone with anxiety, it's often tempting to take over tasks that seem to trigger their symptoms. For example, if your spouse becomes very anxious about walking near the road with your children, you might think it is helpful to simply avoid the activity altogether – not going on walks together as a family, getting out of the car close to your destination, or choosing parks very close to the door.
As another example, if you have a friend who becomes very anxious when making appointments, you might try to help by making those appointments for them.
Over time, however, avoiding anxiety triggers can actually make them worse – and narrow your loved one's world. Instead of enabling their anxiety, look for ways to potentially make those anxiety-inducing scenarios easier on them so they develop the skills to deal with them.
For example, holding your children's hands in the parking lot might reassure your spouse that the kids will be safe. Or writing down what a friend intends to say before calling in to make an appointment can decrease their anxiety.
It’s important to recognize that you can help to ease a loved one’s anxiety while supporting them in continuing to live their lives. Eliminating anxiety altogether is an impossible goal. Keep in mind also that it's not your job to push them to confront their fears. Instead, provide your loved one with support to move through those challenges themselves.
The triggers that make one person extremely anxious can be completely different for another person. You might have no problem at all making phone calls (or even enjoy talking on the phone), while your loved one might find them extremely anxiety-inducing. You might not experience anxiety before a doctor's appointment, but your loved one might get lost in worst-case scenarios.
Since anxiety can decrease the connection to the prefrontal cortex (where reasoning takes place), it can make it much harder to think logically about a potentially anxiety-inducing scenario. For your loved one, that problem feels overwhelming, even if their logical brain knows it rationally shouldn't feel that way.
Instead of telling your loved one that what they’re anxious about is “just a small thing," validate their emotions. Help them to feel seen and heard, not invalidated or belittled. If you act as though their anxiety is insignificant, it can leave them feeling unheard, unimportant, and unsupported – and that can worsen anxiety.
If you are on hand to support someone through an anxiety attack or an anxiety-inducing scenario, take it at a pace they feel comfortable with.
Fear can be a tough challenge to overcome, even when the rational brain knows that the scenario is not that dangerous or should not create that much anxiety. Let your loved ones set the pace, and don't pressure them to move faster than they're comfortable with.
By letting them know that they can deal with those challenges at their own pace, you can provide them with greater overall support and make it easier for them to combat their anxiety.
One of the best things you can do for your loved one is anxiety is simply talk it through with them. Often, racing thoughts can make it difficult to sort out reasonable, realistic scenarios from potential disasters.
Learning how to challenge exaggerated thoughts is an effective coping mechanism for anxiety.
Ask questions such as:
What is the worst-case scenario if this event goes the way you fear? For example, responding to an angry email from a client might make someone with anxiety feel very anxious about continuing the interaction, but help them to realize that the worst-case scenario is losing a client who they may not need or want to work with anyway.
How will you respond to the worst-case scenario? If this bad thing does happen, what will your loved one do about it? Thinking through a response plan can help your loved one feel more prepared and decrease the fight-or-flight reflex.
What is the best-case scenario? Imagining the best-case scenario can help your loved one envision a more positive outcome and start to overcome their anxiety. A calm response to an angry email could diffuse the tension, restore the relationship, and make it easier to interact with that person in the future.
Dealing with anxiety is an ongoing challenge for many people. Receiving the right support is important for treatment and moving forward with life in a more positive, less anxious way.
Pay attention to your loved one's cues, set boundaries based on what you feel you can handle so you don’t become overly burdened by trying to help them and continue to offer compassion, understanding, and support.
Facts & Statistics | Anxiety & Depression Association of America
Seven Ways to Help Someone with Anxiety | Greater Good Magazine
How to Help Someone with Anxiety | Johns Hopkins Medicine