How to Support Someone Living with Anxiety

Knowing what anxiety is and what its impacts are can help you to better support someone with this condition.

Someone struggling with anxiety may feel so fearful that they avoid taking action, or act in ways that are inconsiderate or that increase your own anxiety.

Anxiety might look like a friend or family member constantly putting off important tasks or discussions, complaining about being lonely but refusing social invitations, or always focusing on what could go wrong.  

People with anxiety tend to overthink (ruminating about the past or worrying about the future), avoid whatever triggers their anxiety, and use compensatory or avoidance strategies that decrease their anxiety temporarily but increase it over the long-term. 

Psychical symptoms of anxiety include:

  • A feeling of restlessness, feeling “keyed up,” or “on-edge”
  • Shortness of breath, or a feeling of choking
  • Sweaty palms
  • A racing heart
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Muscle tension, trembling, feeling shaky
  • Nausea and/or diarrhea
  • “Butterflies” in the stomach
  • Dizziness, or feeling faint;
  • Hot flashes;
  • Chills;
  • Numbness, or tingling sensations;
  • An exaggerated startle response; and,
  • Sleep disturbance and fatigue.

These symptoms are caused by the physiological changes that occur in the body during a fight or flight response.

But what can you do to help someone with anxiety?

A conversation can make a big difference in helping someone feel less alone and more supported in recovering from anxiety. Don’t underestimate the importance of just ‘being there’, so let them know you are there for them.

Validating their experience is important. Acknowledge that their anxiety must be difficult to handle, and do NOT tell them their anxiety is stupid or unfounded.

Encourage them to seek help, support them to visit their GP to talk about options for support.

Challenge their thoughts, asking them if there might be other ways to view a situation. You can do this while still validating their anxiety. For example, if they say ‘I’m definitely going to fail this exam’, you can acknowledge that worrying about an exam is normal, but you can also reassure them that they’ve studied hard and have done well on exams in the past.

Encourage them to face their fears. If you notice that they are avoiding certain situations as a way of reducing their anxiety. Tell them you believe they can overcome their fears and offer your support to help while they face them.

Celebrate their successes! When you see a friend take steps towards confronting their fears, congratulate them and plan to do something fun together. Help them feel proud for addressing the issue.

And don’t forget to look after yourself.

Recognise that while you want to and can help, it is not your responsibility to cure the person or relieve them from their anxiety.

Another important point is that your support doesn’t need to be directly anxiety focused. Other helpful ways to manage anxiety include exercise. Perhaps you could offer to go for a walk or attend a yoga class together. 

Remember 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.

If supporting your friend or family member starts to weigh you down, speak to someone you trust about how you feel. Also, consider talking to a mental health professional if you are feeling overwhelmed.

Written by Cheryl Gale, Phycologist, Proactive Health + Movement

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