For someone living with an anxiety disorder, it can seem dismissive when a loved one says “calm down” or “you’ll be fine.” In the past, I used to take these kinds of responses personally and get frustrated that no one knew what I was going through, let alone how to be there for me in the ways that I needed. Why don’t they get it? I thought.
Sometimes, their attempt at comforting me actually made me feel worse. According to psychologist Dr. Lauren Appio, this makes sense, since “minimizing someone’s anxiety will only cause them more stress.” While my friends and family members may have merely wanted to help me look on the bright side or reassure me that I have nothing to worry about, hearing these responses always made me feel misunderstood, and sometimes even “crazy”.
Luckily, after nearly two years of psychotherapy, I realize now that usually when people say these things they don’t actually mean any harm, and they likely just don’t know what to say. Since this is probably due to existing stigma around mental illness and a lack of proper education, it’s important to educate people on how they can be there for a friend who deals with chronic anxiety.
Firstly, it’s important not to generalize a person’s situation as everyone deals with stress differently, says psychotherapist Vanessa Kensing. When we make comments like “just relax” or “everything will work out,” it can make someone feel even more disconnected and want to pull away. Instead of comforting them, this actually invalidates their emotional experience. And ultimately, this can make people feel ashamed of their feelings, alienating them from everyone even further.
Whenever a friend is dealing with anxiety, try your best to make them feel cared for and supported. “I recommend asking if the person wants advice before offering,” says Kensing. While the anxious person may not always be upfront about what they need, asking how you can show up for them could open the door to a supportive conversation, inviting them to share what’s really going on and how they could be better supported in whatever they’re experiencing.
Plus, they may have some ideas for how you could best support them in getting to a place where they’re thinking more clearly. “If you know from experience what coping strategies your friend finds helpful, see if they would like you to remind them of those activities when they’re anxious,” says Dr. Appio. And while you can share your own experience, keep the focus on your friend and their feelings.
“If you think your friend could benefit from therapy, focus on de-stigmatizing your recommendation. For example, try sharing how therapy was helpful for you, and offer to help them through the process if possible,” says Kensing. If you’re going to bring up something that happened in your own life, just make sure it doesn’t draw the attention away from what they’re going through.
It can also be helpful to reassure them they will get through this, and validate their experience. “Even if you think your friend logically has nothing to worry about, it’s okay to reflect their feelings back to them,” says Dr. Appio. She recommends saying things like, “I can see why you’re feeling stressed” or “It makes complete sense that you’re upset about that,” while also acknowledging the tough things that might be going on in their life.
According to Dr. Appio, validation doesn’t have to mean that you’re agreeing with their anxiety or trying to fix their problems. “Feeling understood is soothing to us and when we validate ourselves or get validation from others, we usually sense a decrease in the intensity of our anxiety and other emotions,” she says. Beyond this, showing up for them means reminding them that whatever they’re going through, they can face it.
If you can, try reminding them of a time in the past when they felt similarly but got through it. Though they may not be able to change their current situation, they’ve successfully navigated other challenging experiences, and it can be encouraging to hear this when someone is stuck in a thought pattern. “Sometimes, people need to be reminded of their own capacity,” says Dr. Appio.
While supporting your friend is important, it’s a good idea to make sure you’re checking in with yourself as well since anxiety can be contagious. Ask yourself, “Is this my anxiety, or my friend’s?” If the conversation is feeling overwhelming, try emotionally disengaging while still staying present. Kensing recommends picturing yourself inside a bubble in which you can still see see, hear, and speak with your friend, but the anxiety bounces against the walls of the bubble, acting as a layer of energetic protection around you. If you don’t protect yourself, you could wind up catching their anxiety, causing resentment towards the friend and burnout for you.
Though it’s not your job to manage your friend’s anxiety, you can still support someone in whatever they’re going through, without letting their emotions get the best of you. “As many therapists have said before, you’ve got to put your own oxygen mask on first,” Dr. Appio says. Still, learning how to support a friend who deals with anxiety could ultimately help you with your own stress, giving you insight into how you manage your emotions and how the people around you show up when you’re in the thick of something tough or emotional.