Anxiety and its associated disorders (panic disorder, agoraphobia, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and separation anxiety disorder) are among the most common mental health conditions today.
Surveys have shown that as many as 33.7%¹ of people will develop an anxiety disorder in their lifetime.
This means that it is highly likely that at some point, we will all know or love someone living with an anxiety disorder. And, of course, we will want to support them as best we can.
However, to do so, it is imperative to understand their condition, the possible negative thought patterns they are engaged in, and how best to communicate love and understanding to them.
In this article, we look at some ways you can support someone with anxiety, as well as some phrases to steer clear of.
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People living with anxiety may experience changes to their brain chemicals and thinking patterns that cause negative thoughts and a negative perception of the world around them.
Anxiety is associated with changes in the specific brain regions that process emotions. For instance, changes to a series of brain regions known as the Default Mode Network² are common in disorders like depression and anxiety. The result is altered pathways in the brain which can lead to rumination and more self-attention, leading to social anxiety.
People with anxiety disorders have significant difficulties controlling negative thought patterns. Additionally, they live with an elevated stress response which means their brains are more likely to interpret neutral experiences as stressful or threatening.
You cannot simply fix someone’s anxiety disorder.
However, by understanding that the physiological and psychological origins of anxiety disorders are outside the person’s control, you can be more compassionate and understanding in the way you communicate with them.
As a loved one, your role is to provide a safe space for them to feel validated and understood, even when their worries and fears “don’t make sense.”
If someone you are close to is living with anxiety, you may notice these things:
Fearfulness and an impending sense of doom
They may have a constant fear that something bad will happen. They may voice this to you, question adventurous things you suggest, or be reluctant to be alone.
Seeking constant reassurance
Your loved one may allude to their lack of clarity and anxiety-induced low self-esteem and hopelessness by seeking constant reassurance that things will be okay, that your relationship will be okay, or that perhaps their performance, achievements, or appearance is okay.
Anxiety can make it difficult to sleep, resulting in a restless night. Of course, this could mean they appear tired during the day and affect both of you.
Irritable and easily frustrated
Your loved one may be “short” with you or those around them when it seems unreasonable to be so. They may get easily frustrated when things don’t work, causing them to lash out, throw things, or give up easily.
Fast heartbeat, shortness of breath, and sweating
Someone struggling with anxiety or having a panic attack may appear to be short of breath when speaking or when exerting themselves may complain of chest pain. They may also be clammy and sweat more than they usually would.
They may seem withdrawn, hide away in their room, and be unwilling to engage in normal social activities. On the other hand, they may also be unusually attached to you and be reluctant to be apart and do things on their own.
They may often use a tone and words that sound quite sad. Their take on things may seem unreasonably negative, and their self-talk may be excessively self-deprecating.
Food and weight changes
They may eat a lot more and make poorer food choices. Or, conversely, they may have a loss of appetite. You may notice weight changes based on these habits (either gaining or losing weight unintentionally).
Sometimes people with anxiety will experience panic attacks, which can feel life-threatening to them, even though they aren’t.
It’s not uncommon to seek emergency medical care for a panic attack because the person feels like they are dying.
Don’t expect life to be easy or predictable
Although it may be easy on good days to forget that someone close to you is living with anxiety, it’s important to remember that they are still living with certain challenges.
Keep your expectations realistic and be understanding about what to expect from them.
By expecting too much and then being surprised or resentful when they can’t deliver, you may alienate them further and increase the burden of their negative thoughts.
Learn as much as you can
Learn about the symptoms, thought patterns, and treatments for your loved one’s condition. In doing so, you will arm yourself with understanding, compassion, skills, and techniques to make life easier for them and yourself.
The absolute best way to better understand them is to ask them questions like “how does that feel for you?”, or “how does it feel in your body and mind when you are stressed?”
Keep stress in check
This may be by doing practical things such as meal planning, organizing schedules so that routines are predictable, and by actively scheduling in downtime where your loved one isn’t expected to be in top form. Make sure to ask them how you can help.
Encourage good sleep hygiene
This could include a no screens an hour before bed policy, encouraging a regular bedtime and wake-up time, even if your loved one struggles to sleep.
By joining your friend or partner in the journey toward better sleep, they’ll feel encouraged to do better as well.
Be supportive but not enabling
Enabling your loved one by helping them avoid anxiety-provoking situations or censoring what you say can be an easy trap to fall into. Although this seems like a caring thing to do, it won’t help them in the long run.
It is important to be understanding of their situation and support the person, but not the condition itself.
Encourage physical activity
Schedule time for consistent workout sessions where they will have support and camaraderie. Encourage them and be a cheerleader for any progress made.
You can join a sports team, take hikes, or even just schedule regular walks together.
Be open-minded and open-ended in your quest to help
It is difficult to predict what may be helpful for your loved one living with anxiety. And each person is very different with very differing needs, so it is essential to refrain from making assumptions or even offering unsolicited advice.
It is important to ask questions such as “what can I do to help you?” so that they have a chance to reflect and answer in a way that is most beneficial to them.
Asking them questions such as “what do you need?’, “how can I make this experience easier for you?”, or “what can I do to support you right now” are all excellent approaches.
Be open to just being
Sometimes, the best communication is in the form of simply being there without needing to speak.
Someone with acute anxiety may not have the words to articulate what they are feeling or what they need in a given moment, so creating expectations for them to talk can compound their anxiety.
Often, they just need to feel that they are not alone. Simply showing them that you are there for them no matter what, and they can feel free to be themselves is a powerful tool.
A question you could ask is, “will it help you if I sit with you?” or “would you like a hug?”
Tell them they aren’t alone
People who live with anxiety feel alienated by the very nature of the condition and the negative thoughts they experience. Then they worry about their actions and dwell on past interactions.
To help them, it is important to reassure them that they are not alone and you will be there for them regardless of how they act and feel. When everything feels uncertain and overwhelming, they need this kind of gentle reassurance.
Express concern and help them to realize the state of their anxiety
As compelling as it is to brush over anything negative and to try and cheer your loved one up, it is important to express your concern and name what you are witnessing.
However, you must do this in a very non-judgmental and loving way. In doing so, you may help them face their feelings and show that you’ve noticed that they are struggling.
It may sound something like this:
“I noticed that you’ve been avoiding going out. What do you think caused the change? I am happy to listen and be here for you”. It may be an important time to encourage them to seek professional help if they are declining.
Check-in for understanding
When someone with anxiety has shared their feelings with you, it is very important that you then show them your understanding. You can show your support by actively listening and exhibiting empathy and a willingness to learn.
A practical way to do this is to reframe what they said and repeat it back to them, and then ask them whether or not you have understood it correctly. This sets up a situation for them to be truly understood and an opportunity to correct it non-judgmentally if they feel they haven’t been.
Allowing them space to feel heard is very healing.
It should go without saying that unless you think your loved one is in danger, you must maintain confidentiality when someone has gone to the effort of sharing their pain with you.
If they perceive or hear you betraying their trust by sharing their story with others, they will not confide in you again, and their anxiety can dramatically increase.
“Stop worrying. Everything will be okay.”
Although you may have the best intentions, telling someone with anxiety not to worry is pointless, as studies have shown they cannot control their thoughts. It also invalidates their feelings and shows a lack of understanding.
“Everyone feels anxious at some point.”
Telling them what they are going through and likening it to your own or others’ encounters with anxiety trivializes their suffering.
Living with an anxiety disorder is very different from simply experiencing anxiety from time to time.
“It could be worse” or “others have it worse than you.”
Although you may be trying to offer perspective, telling someone with an anxiety disorder that “it could be worse” is condescending and will do nothing to alleviate the anxiety they are experiencing. All this will do is alienate them from you and make their symptoms worse.
“You have so much to be grateful for.”
Gratitude and anxiety³ have little to do with each other when someone is living with a disorder. Reminding them of their good fortune as a way of telling them not to worry will only belittle their feelings and show a lack of understanding.
The spiral they are in is uncontrollable and can happen irrespective of how great their life may seem.
“You have to talk to me. I’m here for you. You must feel like this…”
Assumptions, expectations, and confrontations are never beneficial for someone living with an anxiety disorder.
Setting up this scenario by creating a level of expectation for them to speak or how they should feel will only cause them more anxiety and result in them seeing you as an “unsafe person” to confide in.
Navigating life as the support person of someone living with an anxiety disorder is confusing and challenging. It requires an intricate understanding of what they are experiencing, encouragement to follow steps to get better, and gentleness to be there for support when, if, and how they may need it.
It is also vital to remember that it takes emotional energy to be in this support position, so be kind to yourself and ensure you have your support network in place.