Do you have a loved one who suffers from anxiety?
Do you wish you could help them feel better but don’t know what to do?
What should you say or do to help someone who is in the midst of an anxious spiral?
What should you not say or do?
It can be difficult to know what to do to help a friend or family member who is struggling with anxiety. The tricky thing is, some things you say or do (or don’t say or do) can and will make their anxiety much worse. Or worse yet, make them feel even worse than they already do.
On the other end, those of us who do suffer from severe anxiety, whether diagnosed or undiagnosed, can oftentimes feel like their loved one is being insensitive and utterly unhelpful when we are having a hard time.
Here is a list of things you can do to help someone with anxiety.
1st and most important step: DO SOME HOMEWORK
Someone who truly cares about someone else will do everything they can to comfort them. We want others to be happy. We want to do things that will allow our loved ones to live their life to the fullest and enjoy it while they’re doing it.
But everyone is different. Everyone’s needs are different. And those who struggle with severe anxiety have additional needs to maintain a healthy mental state.
And this starts with you.
You’ve already started this first step to helping them if you have made your way to this post!
Educate yourself and learn about your loved one’s specific mental disorder.
There are just about a gazillion books on mental health and a gazillion more on anxiety and the specific types.
Everyone has anxiety. The fight or flight response is natural. If we didn’t have some form of anxiety (fight or flight) then the human species, or any species for that matter, sure wouldn’t have lasted very long!
But someone with an anxiety disorder is stuck in fight or flight mode. The stress hormones are stuck in an elevated state which means biologically, the body is ready for an attack at all times.
An anxiety DISORDER:
- Is an excessive and persistent worry that doesn’t let up
- Gives the feeling of fear and “what ifs” all the time
- Is difficult to control – can’t “just stop” or “just chill out”
- Lasts longer than 6 months
- Interferes with everyday life
- Depending on the severity, may need medication to regulate
There are several different types of anxiety disorders, including Post Traumatic Stress (PTSD), Obsessive Compulsive (OCD), Social Anxiety, and Generalized Anxiety (GAD) just to name a few, and oftentimes people can have more than one simultaneously.
I talk more on the difference between Anxiety vs. and Anxiety Disorder in this post called “When Self-Care Isn’t Enough.”
Here’s what you need to educate yourself on in order to help someone with anxiety:
- Learn about their specific disorder
- Learn what actually works to help calm an anxious person (And no, just telling them to “calm down” is NOT going to cut it!)
- Learn what makes anxiety worse
- Know and understand triggers – things that will “trigger,” or make worse someone’s anxiety. And do your best not to set them off on a regular basis!
What NOT to do if you want to help someone with anxiety
Here is a list of things you should NOT do if you are trying to help someone with anxiety.
1 DO NOT Walk on eggshells
Your anxious loved one is not some precious piece of breakable glass that you have to treat as such. As a matter of fact, encouraging avoidance is one of the worst things you can do for them. Which leads me to my next point…
2. DO NOT Encourage avoidance
Examples of this could be:
- Your wife hates large crowds for fear of having a humiliating panic attack in public so she refuses to go grocery shopping. You never push the issue and do all of the shopping yourself, leaving her at home.
- Your friend has social anxiety so as a result, you never invite or bring them along to any social events, even small ones with just a handful of people. Or even ones with just you and them but somewhere in public.
- Your husband hates riding in cars for fear of having an accident so he insists he will stay home. You don’t push the issue and go everywhere without him.
Avoidance increases anxiety. All of these scenarios cause an anxiety snowball. The more the anxious person avoids a situation for fear of what might happen, the more they are reinforcing their fears (which most of the time are irrational fears, anyway). The end result: an anxious person who has now become increasingly afraid of everything.
3. DO NOT Raise your voice – especially in a defensive manner
This tip is a no-brainer. Even someone without anxiety doesn’t feel better by being yelled at.
4. DO NOT Speak in a condescending manner
When someone is in an anxious spiral, all things rational are out the window. Remember this!
They really do believe the thing(s) they are panicking about is a huge deal. Like, end of the world type of huge deal. It is only later, once the stress hormones have had a chance to calm down a bit, that they can realize it is not the total end of the world.
Yes, it is unbelievable how upset the person is getting over such a “small” issue.
Yes, it’s probably annoying to you, the non-anxious one (lucky you!), to have to listen to someone freak out over what you feel is such a minor thing.
But do you like to be spoken to as if you are inferior? Do you feel better when someone acts like they are annoyed with your concerns? Probably not.
Your loved one needs you to stay calm and collected, because most of the time they don’t even realize it is the anxiety talking.
What to DO if you want to help someone with anxiety
1 DO Be proactive
On a day when anxiety is not shooting through the roof, have a sit-down conversation with your loved one, and ask what you can do to help them when their anxiety is unmanageable. Express that you want to help them but you need to know what exactly it is that they want in those moments when their anxiety is out of control.
Everyone is different when they’re in the middle of a downward spiral. Some just need a listener. Others want advice. Still, others actually just want to be left alone. You won’t know what that individual person needs or wants until you ask them!
2 DO Study them
I’ve already touched on this before in the “Do Some Homework” topic above but it is so important so I just had to mention it again.
- Make a mental note of what makes them happy and fulfilled
- Make a mental note of what specifically triggers them into a downward spiral. Keep in mind, a bunch of tiny triggers can add up to one big blow up!
- Notice signs of them feeling overwhelmed. Most people won’t always be able to literally tell you “I’m feeling anxious.” And most of the time they don’t even notice the signs themselves until it’s too late. Signs could include snappiness, irritability, unable to make decisions, unable to focus, can’t hold a thought long enough to complete a sentence, sensitive to loud noises, jumpy and startle easily, etc.
3 DO Gently remove the person from the triggering situation
Whatever it is that is currently triggering your loved one and has sent them into a panic, rage, irritated mood, crawl under the table and just want to hide, etc., remove them from the situation and into a quiet, less stimulating environment.
Because, speaking as someone with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, believe me when I tell you this: Sitting in an anxious situation will only keep our anxiety in fight or flight mode and it WILL NOT calm down, no matter what we try and do until that trigger has been removed, at least for the time being until we can have a minute to calm ourselves and get back on track!
4 DO Check In
We all are in our own heads, in our own world, dealing with our own lives. Some of us deal better than others. And some of us have a really, really hard time.
If you have someone in your life who you know has clinical anxiety and/or depression, keep one thing in your mind while on your quest to help them: Know that they are struggling literally all day every day.
Anxiety disorders can be crippling and interfere with everyday life. Anxious thoughts, constant fears, indecisiveness, lack of focus, irritability, etc.
Check-in with them periodically. And I mean a sincere check-in.
When you ask, “How are you today?,” sincerely want to know the real answer to that question and not settle for the canned, “I’m fine” response.
Just listen. Advice is not necessarily required.
Sometimes simply knowing that there is someone who cares, can bring happiness to their day.
5 DO Help them get help
When I am anxious I’m beyond overwhelmed. And I will feel debilitated, as if my feet are cemented to the floor.
Adding yet another thing to my to-do list (such as researching therapists, what books to read, etc) is out of the question and will make my overwhelm worse.
Instead of just suggesting what someone “needs to do” or “should do” or saying things like, “what you need is…,” do it for them!
Examples of this could be:
- Bring them a specific self-help book that you think would help their anxiety. Bonus if you have bookmarked specific chapters and included highlights throughout!
- Do the research for them – Ask around, read reviews, and get referrals on the best counselor/therapist in town.
- Offer to babysit the kids while they go to their counseling/therapy appointments. (I know this was a huge one for me because I actually had to stop going to counseling because I had no one to watch my non-school-aged kids! I went through countless babysitters who were not only terrible but costly. Cost of counseling appointment + cost of average 2 hours of babysitting time multiplied by once or twice a week every week = $$$$ EXPENSIVE.)
If your loved one’s initial response to getting treatment for anxiety is, “Hell no! I’m not going to talk to some stranger!” or are unaware (or refuse to admit) the severity of their anxiety and how it is affecting them and those around them, find a quiet moment to have a calm, sincere conversation about how treatment might be a way to feel better, faster.
DO NOT mention this in the heat of an anxiety attack or while your loved one is in the middle of an anxious spiral, though! You will not only make them feel worse about themselves than they already do, but remember, they are in FIGHT or flight – they will resort to FIGHT and will take your sincere suggestion as an attack.
6 DO Give comfort
If all else fails, give them the biggest hug you’ve ever given anyone and tell them, “We will figure this out together.” (And then actually help them figure it out once they’ve calmed down!)
What NOT TO SAY to someone with anxiety
If you truly want to help someone with anxiety, watch what you say! Anything you say (or don’t say) MATTERS!
Here are some things that if said, will likely make their anxiety much worse.
- DO NOT SAY, “Just don’t worry about it.” – If it were as easy as this, anxiety disorders wouldn’t even be a thing lol.
- DO NOT SAY, “You need to…” – No one likes to be treated like a child who can’t make decisions for themselves. Since you’ve done your homework on what does and doesn’t work for extreme anxiety, you should be able to make suggestions on what they can try out. Replace the word “need” with polite suggestion tactics such as:
- Turning your suggestion into a question: “What if you/we…?” “Have you considered…?” “Can you/we…?”
- Use tentative language: “Maybe you could…” “It might be a good idea to…”
- Use the word “we” whenever possible: “You” can sound accusatory and get someone on defense (not to mention make them feel even more like crap than they already feel). The word “we” can give your anxious friend a sense that they are not alone in the world and that you are on their side and there to help them through.
- DO NOT Tell them their thinking is “irrational.” – Yes, it probably is irrational. But that’s part of the anxiety disorder – IRRATIONAL fear! Until their fight or flight stress hormones come back down to a normal level, they truly believe what they are thinking.
- DO NOT SAY, “You’re panicking over nothing”
- DO NOT SAY, “Calm down”
- DO NOT Go mute and say nothing – Trust me, they need your input. NEED IT. As someone with Generalized Anxiety Disorder myself, I don’t even understand my anxiety half the time. So when I can’t pinpoint the exact reason I’m currently having a batty moment and don’t really know exactly what you can do to help me, please don’t take my “I don’t know” as your queue to walk away and leave me to deal with it on my own. The feeling of being all alone in this is probably one of the worst feelings!
What To Say To Help Someone Who Has Anxiety
Here are some things to say and do if you want to help someone with anxiety:
- “I am here for you, and I always will be.”
- “We will figure this out together.”
- “I understand your concerns and fears.” (Even if you think they are as irrational as all get-out!)
- “Let’s take a few deep breaths and then let’s think this through” (And then take the breaths with them)
- “I’m sorry you are struggling. I am here with you now.”
- If they are in the middle of a downward anxious spiral, limit asking your anxious friend to make any kind of decisions, no matter how small. But if you are completely unsure what to do, ask them! “What can I do to help you at this very moment?” “Would you like advice or for me to just listen?”
Those who have chronic anxiety have daily fears and “what ifs” that never let up. It is exhausting and takes a toll on a person’s ability to live in the present.
Having someone in their life that is willing to make the time and effort to help can make all the difference.
WHAT IS SOMETHING YOU HAVE DONE TO HELP SOMEONE WITH ANXIETY? COMMENT BELOW!