Seven Ways to Help Someone with Anxiety (2022)

When I first moved into my (now) spouse’s house in 2001, she didn’t want to include my name in our answering machine greeting. Because of our big age gap and same-sex relationship, she was justifiably anxious about how her parents would react to my having moved in; so she kept it from them for several months. Though I felt a great deal of compassion for her and her situation, I was also frustrated that her anxiety was affecting me—and I didn’t like acting as though we had something to be ashamed of.

Seven Ways to Help Someone with Anxiety (1)

Scenarios like this are common when someone in your life is struggling with anxiety. Your loved one may feel so fearful that they avoid taking action, or act in ways that are inconsiderate or that increase your own anxiety. This might look like a boyfriend constantly putting off important tasks or discussions, a friend complaining about being lonely but refusing to date, or a boss always focusing on what could go wrong, making everyone miserable. It’s difficult to witness anxiety in someone you know, and it’s even harder when their anxiety triggers yours.

But what can you do to help anxious people?

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Seven Ways to Help Someone with Anxiety (2)

First you need to understand that anxiety is a human feature, not a flaw. Most of us get anxious from time to time, because it’s a generally useful emotion that helps us to see potential threats, makes us concerned with social rejection, and keeps us on alert to being deceived. While being anxiety-prone might seem like a fault, it’s actually helpful to have some people in a population who are more cautious and who frequently think about what could go wrong.

(Video) 7 Reassuring Things To Say To Someone With Anxiety

However, sometimes people get into patterns of coping with anxiety that cause it to snowball. They overthink (ruminating about the past or worrying about the future), avoid whatever triggers their anxiety, and use compensatory strategies—like being extremely perfectionist to avoid feeling like an imposter at work—that decrease their anxiety temporarily but increase it over the long-term. These coping strategies can also push people away—people like you.

While it’s upsetting and frustrating to see these folks suffer, there are things you can do to help. Here are some of the strategies I recommend based on my book, The Anxiety Toolkit.

1. Understand differences in how anxiety manifests

Because of evolution, we’re wired to respond to fear by either fight, flight, or freeze. For different people, one of these responses will typically dominate. For instance, my spouse tends to freeze and will bury her head in the sand rather than deal with things that make her feel stressed and panicky. I tend more toward fighting, and will become irritable, excessively perfectionistic, or dogmatic if I feel stressed.

When you understand that anxiety is designed to put us into a mode of threat sensitivity, it’s easier to understand someone who is feeling scared (or stressed) and acting out by being irritable or defensive, and to find compassion for them. By paying attention to how anxiety manifests in the person you care about, you can learn their patterns and be in a better position to help.

2. Match your support to their preferences and attachment style

It’s best to ask someone what type of support they prefer rather than guess! However, we know from research that people who have an avoidant attachment style (typically those who’ve experienced rejecting caregiving or relationships in the past) are likely to respond best to strong displays of concrete practical support. That could include helping the anxious person break tasks down into manageable steps, or talking through specific options for how to deal with a difficult situation, like how to respond to an angry email, but still acknowledging their autonomy and independence while doing so.

Other people are more likely to prefer emotional support, especially those who are securely attached, or who have a “preoccupied” attachment style due to a fear of being abandoned or of their emotions being overwhelming to others. Folks like this respond well to statements emphasizing that they’re part of a tight team—for example, their supporter saying, “This is tough but we love each other and we’ll get through it together.”

Of course these are generalizations, and you need to tailor your support by observing what works in your particular situation. But when you have a very close relationship with someone, you can offer support based on intimately understanding your loved one’s anxiety patterns.

(Video) #LetsTalkAboutIt: How to Overcome Anxiety

3. Find ways to make use of any insight they have into their anxiety

If your loved one has insight into their anxiety, you can help them spot when their anxiety-driven patterns are occurring. I find it helpful when my spouse notices that I’m expressing my anxiety about work by being irritable with her or by being too fussy. Because we know each other’s patterns so well and have a trusting relationship, we can point out each other’s habits. Not that this is always met with grace, but the message sinks in anyway.

If you’re going to do this, it’s a good idea to have their permission first. Keep in mind that people who have insight into their anxiety often still feel compelled to “give in” to their anxious thoughts. For instance, a person with health anxiety might logically know that going to the doctor every week for multiple tests is unnecessary, but they can’t help themselves. If your loved one lacks insight into their anxiety or has trouble managing compulsions, it’s probably best to encourage them to see a clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of anxiety.

4. Help someone who is anxious to temper their thinking

You’ll be a more useful support person if you educate yourself about cognitive-behavioral models of anxiety, which you can do by reading or attending a therapy session with your loved one. But, in lieu of that, you might try using some techniques that can be helpful to people suffering from anxiety.

(Video) How To Help Someone with Anxiety

Typically, anxious people have a natural bias towards thinking about worst-case scenarios. To help them get some perspective on this, you can use a cognitive therapy technique where you ask them to consider three questions:

  • What’s the worst that could happen?
  • What’s the best that could happen?
  • What’s most realistic or likely?

So, if your loved one is anxious that they were supposed to hear from their parents hours ago but haven’t, you can suggest they consider the worst, best, and most likely explanations for the lack of contact.

Take care not to overly reassure your loved one that their fears won’t come to pass. It’s more useful to emphasize their coping ability. For example, if they’re worried about having a panic attack on a plane, you could say, “That would be extremely unpleasant and scary, but you’d deal with it.” And, if your loved one is feeling anxious that someone else is angry with them or disappointed in them, it’s often useful to remind them that you can only ever choose your own actions and not completely control other people’s responses.

5. Offer support, but don’t take over

Avoidance is a core feature of anxiety, so sometimes we may feel pulled to “help out” by doing things for our avoidant loved ones and inadvertently feed their avoidance. For instance, if your anxious roommate finds making phone calls incredibly stressful and you end up doing this for them, they never push through their avoidance.

A good general principle to keep in mind is that support means helping someone to help themselves, not doing things for them, which includes virtually anything that stops short of actually doing it yourself. For example, you might offer to attend a first therapy session with your loved one if they set up the appointment. Or, if they’re not sure how to choose a therapist, you might brainstorm ways of doing that, but let them choose.

An exception might be when someone’s anxiety is accompanied by severe depression. If they can’t get themselves out of bed, they may be so shut down that they temporarily need people to do whatever is needed to help them stay alive. Also, sometimes loved ones are so gripped by an anxiety disorder that they’re in pure survival mode and need more hands-on help to get things done. In less extreme circumstances, however, it’s best to offer support without taking over or overdoing the reassurance.

6. If someone has a more serious anxiety problem, avoid stigmatizing them

What can we do for folks with more serious issues? People experiencing things like panic disorder, depression mixed with anxiety, post-traumatic stress, or obsessional thinking (including thoughts related to eating disorders) may fear that they’re literally going crazy. Helping them may feel beyond your ability.

You can still be supportive in many ways. When someone is experiencing significant anxiety, it’s helpful to reassure them that your overall perception of them hasn’t changed. They’re still the same person; they’re just suffering a temporary problem situation that has become out of control. They’re not broken and who they are hasn’t changed. To the extent possible, you can help the person stay connected to positive aspects of their identity by participating in or encouraging their interests and hobbies.

Sometimes, individuals who have chronic anxiety problems aren’t interested in changing. For example, you might be friends with someone who has agoraphobia or an eating disorder, but their condition is long-term and stable. In these cases, you can be accepting of that person so that they don’t feel isolated. Being matter-of-fact about their limitations without excessively shaming them or insisting they should pursue becoming “normal” is often the best strategy.

7. Take care of yourself, too

Recognize that your goal is to help, not to cure the person or relieve them from their anxiety. Taking too much responsibility is actually a symptom of anxiety, so make sure you’re not falling into that trap yourself.

(Video) 7 Tips To Help Someone With PTSD | Mental Health 101 | Kati Morton

Keep in mind that your support doesn’t need to be directly focused on anxiety. For example, exercise is extremely helpful for anxiety; so perhaps you could simply offer to go for a walk or attend a yoga class together. It’s also fine to put some limits on your support. A 20-minute de-stressing conversation while taking a walk is far more likely to be useful (and less exhausting) than a two-hour marathon discussion.

Helping someone with anxiety isn’t always easy and you may feel like you’re getting it wrong. But, if you remind yourself that you and your loved one are both doing your best, it can help you keep things in perspective. It’s important to remain compassionate and, as the saying goes, to put on your own oxygen mask first. That way, you’ll have a clearer head for figuring out what’s going on with your anxious loved one and how you can truly be of help.

FAQs

What is the best way to help someone with anxiety? ›

gently let them know that you think they might be having a panic attack and that you are there for them. encourage them to breathe slowly and deeply – it can help to do something structured or repetitive they can focus on, such as counting out loud, or asking them to watch while you gently raise your arm up and down.

What are 4 suggestions for treating anxiety? ›

Here's what you can do:
  • Keep physically active. Develop a routine so that you're physically active most days of the week. ...
  • Avoid alcohol and recreational drugs. ...
  • Quit smoking and cut back or quit drinking caffeinated beverages. ...
  • Use stress management and relaxation techniques. ...
  • Make sleep a priority. ...
  • Eat healthy.

What are the big five ideas to assist with anxiety? ›

The idea is that the 5-4-3-2-1 technique helps you shift your focus to what's currently happening around you instead of what's making you feel anxious.
...
For that, you want to look around and focus on:
  • 5 things you see.
  • 4 things you feel.
  • 3 things you hear.
  • 2 things you smell.
  • 1 thing you taste.
8 Oct 2021

What can I say to ease someone's anxiety? ›

“Take Your Time:” 10 Things to Say to Someone Who Has Anxiety
  • “Are You OK?” ...
  • “I'm Always Here if You Need to Talk” ...
  • “Your Fears/Worries/Triggers Are Not Silly” ...
  • “Take Your Time” ...
  • “Let's Sort Through This Together” ...
  • “How Can I Help?” ...
  • “There's a Cup of Tea Waiting for You at Home” ...
  • “This Feeling Will Pass”
20 Dec 2017

What is the 3 3 3 rule for anxiety? ›

Follow the 3-3-3 rule.

Look around you and name three things you see. Then, name three sounds you hear. Finally, move three parts of your body — your ankle, fingers, or arm.

What triggers anxiety? ›

A big event or a buildup of smaller stressful life situations may trigger excessive anxiety — for example, a death in the family, work stress or ongoing worry about finances. Personality. People with certain personality types are more prone to anxiety disorders than others are.

What is the best natural thing to take for anxiety? ›

Is there an effective herbal treatment for anxiety?
  • Kava. ...
  • Passion flower. ...
  • Valerian. ...
  • Chamomile. ...
  • Lavender. ...
  • Lemon balm.

What is the 3 3 1 rule for anxiety? ›

It involves looking around your environment to identify three objects and three sounds, then moving three body parts. Many people find this strategy helps focus and ground them when anxiety overwhelms them.

How do you help someone with overthinking? ›

  1. Get Better At Communication.
  2. Reassuring Doesn't Hurt.
  3. Don't Say Anything You Didn't Mean.
  4. Stop Asking Them To Not Overthink.
  5. Actions Speak Louder Than Words.
24 Aug 2021

Is anxiety a mental illness? ›

Anxiety disorders are the most common of mental disorders and affect nearly 30% of adults at some point in their lives. But anxiety disorders are treatable and a number of effective treatments are available. Treatment helps most people lead normal productive lives.

Can crying stop anxiety? ›

Many people associate crying with feeling sad and making them feel worse, but in reality, crying can help improve your mood - emotional tears release stress hormones. Your stress level lowers when you cry, which can help you sleep better and strengthen your immune system.

What foods increase anxiety? ›

Foods (and drinks) that are stress- and anxiety-provoking
  • Alcohol.
  • Caffeine.
  • Sugary drinks and foods.
  • Processed foods, such as chips, cookies, frozen foods and ready-made meals.
  • Foods high in trans fats and excessive saturated fats, such as fried foods, red meat, full-fat dairy, butter and baked goods.
21 Sept 2021

What are weird symptoms of anxiety? ›

UNUSUAL SYMPTOMS OF ANXIETY
  • ‍Indigestion. Anxiety can cause temporary or even chronic indigestion. ...
  • Phantom ringing. Tinnitus, which is a ringing in the ears, can be a sign of stress or anxiety and can be experienced in several ways. ...
  • Burning sensation. ...
  • Heart irregularities. ...
  • Physical numbness or tingling.
12 Jun 2019

Why does water help with anxiety? ›

Water has been shown to have natural calming properties, likely as a result of addressing dehydration's effects on the body and brain. Drinking enough water is an important step in managing your anxiety. Even if you're not experiencing anxiety, drinking sufficient water can create feelings of relaxation.

What vitamin helps with anxiety? ›

B-complex, vitamin E, vitamin C, GABA, and 5-HTP are 5 vitamins commonly used to help with anxiety and stress.

Are bananas good for anxiety? ›

The B-vitamins in bananas, like folate and vitamin B6, are key to the production of serotonin, which can help improve your mood and reduce anxiety.

How do you help someone with anxiety that doesn't want help? ›

What to do when they don't want help
  1. Listen and validate. If your relationship is iffy, it doesn't hurt to just listen. ...
  2. Ask questions. Ask your loved one what they want! ...
  3. Resist the urge to fix or give advice. ...
  4. Explore options together. ...
  5. Take care of yourself and find your own support.

How do I help my husband with his anxiety? ›

But psychiatrists and therapists say there are ways to help your partner navigate challenges while you also take care of yourself.
  1. Start by addressing symptoms. ...
  2. Don't minimize feelings. ...
  3. Help your partner seek treatment — and participate when you can. ...
  4. Encourage — don't push.
24 Jul 2019

What should you not do with anxiety? ›

Different Anxiety - Different Mistakes
  • Trying to Stop the Thoughts. ...
  • Validating Your Fears. ...
  • Exposure to Anxiety-inducing Stimuli. ...
  • Spending Time With Negative People. ...
  • Hyperventilating. ...
  • Inactivity. ...
  • Avoiding Sleep. ...
  • Poor Diet/Unhealthy Living.

Do Hugs help anxiety attacks? ›

5. Hugs help reduce your fears. Scientists have found that touch can reduce anxiety in people with low self-esteem. Touch can also keep people from isolating themselves when reminded of their mortality.

Does drinking water calm anxiety? ›

Water has been shown to have natural calming properties, likely as a result of addressing dehydration's effects on the body and brain. Drinking enough water is an important step in managing your anxiety. Even if you're not experiencing anxiety, drinking sufficient water can create feelings of relaxation.

How do you calm an anxious person down over text? ›

  1. Apr 5, 2021. How to calm someone down over text. ...
  2. Validate. Don't put words in your friend's mouth but do let them know that they are being heard. ...
  3. ​Get consent. ...
  4. ​Offer options. ...
  5. Maintain boundaries. ...
  6. ​Don't be judgmental. ...
  7. ​Offer them support. ...
  8. ​"I am there"
5 Apr 2021

Is anxiety a mental illness? ›

Anxiety disorders are the most common of mental disorders and affect nearly 30% of adults at some point in their lives. But anxiety disorders are treatable and a number of effective treatments are available. Treatment helps most people lead normal productive lives.

Does anxiety worsen with age? ›

Does anxiety get worse with age? Anxiety disorders don't necessarily get worse with age, but the number of people suffering from anxiety changes across the lifespan. Anxiety becomes more common with older age and is most common among middle-aged adults.

What is high functioning anxiety? ›

“The term high functioning anxiety describes an individual who, despite feeling anxious, seems able to effectively manage the demands of day-to-day life,” says psychologist Adam Borland, PsyD.

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