Everything you need to know about helping someone with anxiety

Worried about a friend or family member with anxiety? Here’s everything you need to know about helping them.

Can’t sleep before the big day? Feeling panicky while taking an important exam? This distressing feeling is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it can be extremely unsettling, but on the other hand, it may motivate you to perform better. This unpleasant sensation is called anxiety.       

Our brain’s instinctive reaction to stressful situations can often cause anxiety. It is considered to be human nature as it happens to most, if not all of us, who’ve been in stressful and potentially life-threatening situations. This reaction, which is typically marked by restlessness, among other manifestations, comes and goes. 

Trethowans
Trethowans

Some, however, are more easily triggered. This feeling of anxiety may linger and can be so intense that it can negatively impact a sufferer’s daily life. Even the simple things like riding public transport, leaving home, talking to other people, may not be easy for a person with anxiety.

If a person who’s chronically feeling anxious doesn’t get the support he or she needs, the condition may get worse. Hence, as with other medical conditions, prevention and maintenance is key. 

In cases where anxiety becomes too paralyzing for a person, a quick visit to a physician may be in order. Anxiety disorders are a serious mental and emotional health condition that often require medical intervention. For further information regarding anxiety symptoms and potential treatments, researching and visiting websites such as this website, may benefit you.

It can be frustrating to see and interact with a person who’s suffering from anxiety. But there are definitely things you can do to help ease their situation and gain further understanding. Here are a few ways in which you may assist a loved one or a friend who’s experiencing more than just a bad day: 

Anxiety manifests differently in every person

Humans are supposedly wired to respond to fear in three ways: fight, flight, or freeze. For instance, when a person sees a bear charging for them, they can either: prepare to fight the bear to death, attempt to flee by climbing a tree or outrunning the creature, or be paralyzed by fear and struggle to do anything. People will have different response mechanisms, but generally one of these reactions, fight, flight or freeze, will tend to dominate.         

Anxiety disorder affects approximately 18% of the US population according to Johns Hopkins Medicine, making it the most common mental health condition in the country. Common as it is, anxiety can have a host of triggers and could manifest in many forms. Understanding that anxiety is our body’s way of reacting to a perceived threat, is key in understanding how it manifests and how we may potentially help a sufferer. 

Most common physical symptoms include:

  • Dizziness
  • Sweating
  • Increased heart rate
  • Rapid breathing or hyperventilation
  • Nausea
  • Feeling antsy and restless
  • Shortness of breath
  • Diarrhea
  • Gastrointestinal problems 
  • Trembling
  • Easily fatigued

Apart from physical symptoms, anxiety may also show up in a person’s behaviors and mental state. Symptoms and signs of this may include: 

  • Expressing a feeling of doom 
  • Persistent worrying 
  • Making quick assumptions
  • Unable to stop self from thinking about a problem non-stop (i.e., rumination)
  • Loss of concentration
  • Indecision

Additional anxious behaviors to monitor may include: 

  • Avoidance of anxiety-causing situations 
  • Begging for assurance
  • Compulsivity 
  • Showing irritability and frustration 
  • Seeking perfection

Empathy goes a long way 

Expressing concern is important in helping alleviate anxiety in a person. This may be easier said than done, being that most of us can’t completely understand what an anxiety sufferer feels. While this may be true, it doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to imagine ourselves in his or her shoes. While you may not be a medical expert, one of the best things that you can do is to empathize and attempt opening a discussion.

For instance, if you notice a friend displaying a total shift in character or showing any of the anxious behaviors listed above, you can begin the conversation by stating your observation (change in behavior) in a respectful manner. If your friend begins to open up, ask your loved one in a non-confrontational way about the reason for such change.   

Depending on the relationship level that you have with someone, you may hear a positive response or your friend may shut you off completely. Either way, always respect the person’s decision. If your friend wants to open up, listen without judgement or interruption.

Ask how you can help

Sufferers will tend to know themselves and their triggers better than anyone else, so it wouldn’t be counterintuitive to ask your loved one how you can help ease their worries. 

This approach works in two ways: it takes the guesswork out of how to support your loved one and it makes them feel in control of the situation. 

Some may already have an idea of how you can help. For instance, they may ask you to take yoga classes with him or her. Some may just want to have a listening ear or a crying shoulder. The thought of having you around when they need you is also a calming thought.  

Provide support, but don’t be an enabler

This may come as a shock. But experts suggest that offering support by eliminating an anxiety trigger for a loved one doesn’t necessarily help. 

People who think that anxiety goes away as soon as you help eliminate the very thing that causes it, is mistaken. Avoiding anxiety triggers may even cause the condition to get worse.   

Avoid being an enabler and changing your routine or behavior just to accommodate to a friend’s avoidance of difficult situations. Besides potentially causing the feelings of anxiety to get worse, it will also further limit your loved one’s life, functions, activities, and movement.  

For instance, a friend who’s anxious to attend social events and requests you to take his or her place, may not be able to overcome anxiety. Instead, going to special events together and supporting them throughout, may be more beneficial. 

Avoid downplaying your loved one’s anxiety  

You may already know this, but belittling your friend’s anxiety feelings will not help. Downplaying the condition may even be one of the worst ways that you can “help” your loved one. Reverse psychology, may work in some cases, but it may not be effective in persons with anxiety.   

It is instead recommended to show unconditional love and understanding to a person impacted by anxiety. Accepting them, as well as expressing sheer motivation to ease their symptoms, are the some of the most effective ways that you can alleviate a person’s feelings of anxiety.    

At the same time, it’s suggested to avoid giving your loved one too much reassurance. Try focusing on their capacity to cope with anxiety instead. For example, instead of saying, “Everything’s going to be okay.”, validate your friend’s fear but tell them you believe that they’re strong enough to deal with it. 

It’s may not be a good idea to force an anxiety sufferer to “suck it up” and face fears head-on. In most cases, pushing past anxiety requires the guidance of a psychologist or a healthcare professional. It also takes time. So, don’t rush your loved one to do something that’s too fearful for him or her.  

There are different types of anxiety disorders 

Anxiety triggers are numerous but they can be classified into the following major types, according to the US Department of Health and Human Sciences:

  • Generalized Anxiety Disorder: Characterized by chronic, unprovoked anxiety, as well as exaggerated worry and tension, typically for no reason.   
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Generally, manifests as the presence of unwanted thoughts and repetitive behaviors. These repetitious actions are done purportedly to drive away obsessive thoughts. In most cases the act only offers temporary relief. 
  • Panic Disorder: This condition is defined by chronic and intense fear that triggers a panic attack or physical symptoms such as chest pain, rapid heartbeat, breathing problems, and lightheadedness. 
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): This is the most common mental health problem suffered by soldiers deployed to war-torn areas. PTSD is often an aftermath of a terrifying event that includes extreme violence, disasters, accidents or pain (physical or mental)   
  • Social Phobia: Another form of Social Anxiety Disorder, this type is manifested by excessive self-consciousness in regular and daily social situations. This is typically driven by fears of being judged or laughed at in group events.    

There are other forms of anxiety to be made aware of such as phobias. Separation anxiety, for example, is common amongst children and adults who feel anxious when a person leaves, or is out of sight.    

Drug withdrawal and misuse, as well as certain medical conditions that involves the heart, lungs and thyroid, may also cause anxiety-like symptoms or exacerbate the condition.   

Learn more about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type form of psychological treatment that’s found to be effective in various mental health conditions including phobias, panic disorders, and all forms of anxiety disorders, among others.

Generally speaking, CBT aims to make a patient feel better by changing the negative notions inside his or her head. This form of therapy hinges on the principle that our thoughts and not external events, affect the way we feel. Put simply, our perception of the situation rather than the actual event, evokes feelings of fear and anxiety. 

This means that the negative perception of a situation is the causative factor for individuals who are feeling anxious, fearful, or worrisome. Hence, the main function of this form of therapy is to determine and correct the negative thoughts and beliefs in a person. 

In more concrete terms, cognitive therapy explores how negative thoughts contribute to or cause anxiety, while behavior therapy scrutinizes your reactions in trigger-inducing situations. 

CBT also invokes cognitive restructuring, where, apart from challenging the negative perceptions that cause anxiety, a patient is asked to replace them with positive thoughts. 

Using these concepts, you may be able to help a loved one by asking questions such as:

  • What’s the worst-case scenario?
  • What’s the best-case scenario?
  • What could be the most probable reason for the negative outcome? 

For instance, if your friend is extremely anxious after finding out that a flight carrying his or her mother has been delayed, ask what could be the worst and best thing that could have happened. Then, ask your friend what could be the likely reason for the flight delay (i.e., flight was re-routed, plane took too long to land due to air traffic, etc.).    

Don’t forget to look after yourself

Caring for someone who’s suffering from anxiety requires patience, understanding, love and motivation. It’s completely understandable for a care provider to feel overwhelmed and drained, especially if you’re supporting a person with anxiety, on your own.     

If you continue to push past your breaking point, you may soon need help yourself. Don’t wait until you’re too burnt out before embarking on these self-care tips:

  • Set limits: Don’t bear the weight of the world on your shoulders. In other words, set limits to what you can do. This is extremely important because it’s difficult to take care of others if you can’t take care of yourself.  
  • Talk to others about how you feel: Look for a family member or a friend whom you truly trust and keep in touch often. This can help you unload some of your thoughts and feelings, and help you cope with negative emotions yourself. You may look for support groups or get therapy yourself. 
  • Live healthy: Eating a balanced diet, regularly exercising, and getting enough sleep strengthens your immune system and enhances well-being. Take this route so you won’t have problems caring for yourself and your loved one.   
  • Continue doing the things that you love: Don’t let caring for your loved one define your life. Pursue your passions and do the things you love, be it reading, dancing, binge-watching your favorite movies, or landscaping.   
  • Find ways to manage stress better:  Practicing yoga, mindful meditation, breathing techniques, or hiking, can do wonders for your mental health, too.  

When to ask for medical help for anxiety

If you feel that someone you know may have an anxiety disorder, encourage him or her to seek medical care. Look for the following signs which indicate that it’s time to see a medical specialist:   

  • Too much worrying is interfering a person’s life   
  • It’s difficult to control anxious feelings  
  • When anxiety may be induced by alcohol and drug abuse  
  • If you suspect that a person’s anxiety may be a symptom of a more serious physical or mental problem  
  • When you think a person has had suicidal thoughts or is displaying self-harming behaviors (this is an emergency case, so it is important to seek help as soon as possible). 

How can you help someone with anxiety?

In caring for a friend or family member with anxiety issues, always remember that your goal is not to “cure” but rather to support and ease the unpleasant feelings accompanying this condition.

At its onset, you may consider the tips discussed in this article. However, for persistent and debilitating anxiety problems, the best course of action is to involve anxiety treatment specialists.

In most cases, persons suffering from anxiety need a combination of psychotherapy, self-care techniques, medications, and unconditional support from loved ones.