October 4, 2022

How to Help Someone with Anxiety

by | Oct 4, 2022 | Anxiety

Having a strong support system can be crucial for someone managing anxiety, but it can be a challenge to know how to help. 

Anxiety presents differently for everyone, both in symptoms and severity. The person who can best answer how you can provide support is the person struggling, but it can be difficult to know where to start, what questions to ask, and what to avoid.  

Educate yourself on anxiety 

When the brain senses danger, it sends hormones and chemicals that are designed to help you manage that danger. For example, if a person encountered an attacker on the street, adrenaline and cortisol would flood the brain to help them run faster, quicken decision-making and reaction time, and even amplify critical sensory input to give them the best chance at survival. This anxiety response is evolutionarily helpful; it’s what has allowed many generations who came before us to survive long enough to pass on their genetics, but it has its challenges in modern-day applications. 

The problem with this system is that the brain isn’t always accurate in its perception of danger, and for people with anxiety disorders, it’s even less accurate. This means that when someone gets a vaguely worded email from their boss, goes into a crowded space and doesn’t immediately see the exit, or wonders if a loved one is safe, their brain is going to respond in much the same way it would if it were being actively attacked. The heightened state of arousal that results from the brain pumping with chemicals and hormones can cause a wide range of symptoms and be deeply uncomfortable; imagine having to sit quietly at a desk when your brain and body are experiencing a level of activation that was intended for imminent, life-threatening danger.

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Anxiety is often used as a general term and can encompass many symptoms and disorders including: 

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder (excessive worry about a variety of concerns)
  • Panic Attacks (intermittent experiences of panic including a feeling of dying, the room closing in, shortness of breath, etc.) 
  • Panic Disorder (repeated panic attacks causing disruption in daily life) 
  • Social Anxiety (anxiety symptoms specifically in response to interactions with other people, often including a fear of judgment)
  • Specific Phobias (intense fear and avoidance of certain things, experiences, or sensations)
  • Agoraphobia (fear related to leaving one’s home, leading to escalating isolation)
  • Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (obsessions/fears coupled with compulsive behaviors attempting to reduce anxiety)

Many people experience anxiety that does not meet clinical criteria for an anxiety-related disorder but is still certainly worthy of support and understanding from those close to them. It is important to note that anxiety is not weakness, selfishness, or attention-seeking. It is not something they can “just get over” or something that is likely to go away without proper support and treatment. 

Learn what anxiety looks like for them

When you think of anxiety, you might think of the classic way it’s portrayed in movies: the nail-biting, the hyperventilating panic attacks, the person who is too frightened to try new things. While these certainly can be symptoms and signs of anxiety, there are many other ways it can manifest so if you are hoping to provide support to a specific person, it’s imperative that you know what anxiety looks like for them. Ideally, they will be able to tell you, but sometimes it’s too difficult to discuss or they may not be able to identify it for themselves. Pay close attention to things like:

  • Intense feelings of fear or dread 
  • Changes in their sleep pattern
  • Irritability and frustration
  • Turning down plans or activities they would typically be interested in, or avoiding certain things
  • Nausea, headaches, or other physical complaints
  • Withdrawing or being uncharacteristically quiet
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fidgeting or body-focused repetitive movements (skin-picking, hair-pulling, etc.)
  • Fatigue 
  • Frequently asking for reassurance 

Of course, the symptoms listed can be related to many other concerns, but if you notice several of these or become aware of patterns in their behaviors, physical/emotional state, or avoidance, it is certainly worth helping them explore as they are ready. 

Don’t try to fix it – be present and patient

Seeing someone you care about in distress can be deeply unsettling, and the natural response is often to try to immediately relieve that distress. For many people with anxiety, immediate attempts to “fix” the problem are overwhelming and unhelpful. Anxiety is typically a response to something that cannot be “fixed” in the moment, so hearing possible solutions can increase frustration and divert attention from engaging in coping skills. 

Instead, focus on being present. Remove all other distractions and reassure the person struggling that you are there. Sit nearby and try simple phrases like:

  • “I’m here”
  • “I’ll be with you the whole time”
  • “We’ll get through this together”

Ensure they are in a safe environment

When someone is experiencing intense anxiety, their environment may be triggering or limiting their ability to manage the anxiety. Loud noises, crowds, or specific social situations can increase anxiety, so help them navigate to a quiet place where they can focus on coping without fear of judgment or feeling pressure to be ok. 

Sometimes, a safe place has little to do with whether a space is quiet and relaxing, and more to do with emotional safety. If you know from previous conversations or notice that a certain person, place, or situation is likely to be highly anxiety-inducing, it may be helpful to assist that person in helping them take a break from the situation. For example, you could ask them to help you in the kitchen or get something from the car; it offers a discrete opportunity to check in with the person away from potential anxiety triggers.

Learn what kind of support they want

Having conversations ahead of time, or debriefing after seeing them experience anxiety can be valuable to know how to best support them in the future. How someone manages anxiety is entirely specific to the person. Hearing what works for them is much more important than what you think might work or what you’ve seen work for others. If you tried something with them, and they are giving feedback that it wasn’t helpful or would be more helpful done another way, listen and log that information for next time. Try a few of these phrases to open a conversation about their support preferences.

  • “It looked like _____ seemed to help, what was that like for you?”
  • “I wondered about trying _____ next time, would that feel supportive?”
  • “What was the least helpful thing we tried?”
  • “Did anything we tried make it worse?”

Walk them through grounding exercises

When anxiety is very high, it can be helpful to engage in grounding skills. Having an outside person to talk them through those exercises can be what’s needed in some situations. Ask them first and take note of their response as you offer this option; some people prefer silence rather than guided assistance. If they are open to it, try walking them through one of these simple grounding techniques. 

  • Guided breathing
    • There are so many ways to engage in breathing as a grounding tool, with none being better than another so do not worry if you don’t remember the steps exactly. Some people prefer things like square breathing (counting to 4 as you breathe in, to 4 as you breathe out, and repeating while visualizing drawing a square with your breaths), while others may prefer to be guided as simply as “in through your nose, out through your mouth” in a slow pace. Anxiety often leads to rapid breathing, so helping them slow their breathing down can be helpful.
  • Engage their senses
    • Our five senses (touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste) are useful tools when helping someone manage anxiety. This is especially true when you are trying to figure out a coping skill to guide them through without much time to prepare. A commonly used skill is the 5-4-3-2-1 method, where you will guide them to find five things they can see, four things they can touch, three things they can hear, two things they can smell, and one thing they can taste. Grounding them through their senses can be an efficient way to help their nervous system regulate.  
  • Progressive muscle relaxation
    • For people who have a difficult time talking or responding when highly anxious, a body-focused grounding skill like progressive muscle relaxation can be a good option. Guide them by drawing their attention to a body part (typically starting with feet and lower extremities), and encourage them to tense, hold, and release the muscles in that area. Working through the body, the goal of this skill is to bring awareness back to the body and regulate the nervous system through that process. 

Encourage professional help

If they aren’t already connected to professional support, make sure to offer to help them get connected to a therapist or other mental health professional. While the support of their friends and family is vitally important, a trained clinician can help them understand and work through their anxiety in a different way. For many people, the task of finding a therapist who has the right specialty, is taking new clients, fits within financial constraints, and who they think they might connect with is such an arduous process that it feels impossible. Offer to look up therapists that fit their criteria, call to inquire about availability, or even go with them to their first appointment. Whatever you can do to help make the process of accessing quality care feel less daunting is incredibly supportive.

You can also direct them to therapeutic Workshops and educational video series MedCircle offers, or suggest watching them together. Created by renowned experts in the field, our video library can be an excellent supplement or precursor to their own therapeutic work. Leveraging high-quality information and strategies for anxiety in the comfort of their own home can be a non-threatening way to empower them to learn about anxiety and explore new coping skills and treatment options.

Offer to lighten their load in other ways

If you are looking to help someone outside of acute moments of anxiety, sometimes the best way is to find ways to reduce their overall stress and burden. If you know they’ve had a particularly difficult time recently, offer to bring them dinner or run an errand, take their children or pets out for a fun time to give them a break, or knock something off their to-do list. When anxiety is high, even the smallest reduction in stress and responsibility can provide much-needed relief. If you know there is an activity that would be stress-relieving, but they don’t have the time or resources, look to see if there are ways you can help facilitate that happening (signups, childcare, gathering supplies, etc.) 

Help them face triggers when they are ready

It may feel counterintuitive to think about helping them face anxiety triggers rather than avoid them. After they have been working to learn about and manage their anxiety, there may come a time when they feel ready to face the things that make them anxious, so that they hold less power. When or if that happens, having someone they trust to come alongside them can be comforting and provide the safety needed to challenge the anxiety. For example, if they previously experienced significant anxiety in a specific place, you could offer to go with them or drive them to the location and wait in the car. If they experience anxiety around unknowns or uncertainties, sitting with them while they face those fears, without trying to “fix it” or reassure them can be powerful. Doing so would be another example of the importance of simply being present while the person with anxiety works through it at their own pace. 

Helping someone with anxiety is never a one-size-fits-all approach. With the right combination of knowledge, coping skills, patience, and presence, you can be the support they need. 

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Disclaimer: This information is not specific medical advice and does not replace information you receive from your healthcare provider. This is only a brief summary of general information. It does NOT include all information about conditions, illnesses, injuries, tests, procedures, treatments, therapies, discharge instructions or lifestyle choices that may apply to you. You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

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