8 Ways to Help a Loved One With Anxiety, According to Psychologists
Did you know that according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, 40 million adults in the U.S. are affected by anxiety disorders per year? That's basically the entire population of California, which makes up nearly 20 percent of our country's population.
But what exactly is anxiety? When anxiety (a persistent worry that won't quit) or fear "gets stuck," it can turn into a disorder and when it arises, can make functioning ten times harder, Aliza Shapiro, LCSW, the clinical operations manager at Center for Anxiety in New York City, tells HelloGiggles. For the person who is experiencing this wave of anxiousness and panic, having someone in their corner can make a big impact on their mental health.
"Most of our anxiety is rooted in uncertainty and loss of control, so when situations arise that trigger either of those feelings, we often experience anxiety as a result. Like every emotion, anxiety presents itself in the body (sensations), mind (thoughts), and feelings (urges, emotions)," she explains.
While the emotion of anxiety is universal, the way we experience or express it is not.
Aside from physical symptoms, these waves of overwhelming, excessive worry can lead to conceptual symptoms like the inability to focus on anything but fearful thoughts, the gradual building of anxious feelings, and the anticipation of perceived unpredictability, says Catherine Schmidt, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in California.
So if you know someone who experiences the above symptoms and you're not sure how to help, we connected with a few psychologists to find out how you can support someone who has anxiety.
How to help someone with anxiety:
The most important thing you can do to help those affected by anxiety is to first, if possible, understand their triggers—interpersonal relationships, large crowds, stressful life situations—but mainly, be a pillar of support.
Learning and understanding how to help during an attack or strong wave of anxiety is a good tool to have in your mental health back pocket—not only for those around you, who may suffer from anxiety but also in case you ever experience something similar as well. These expert-recommended tips are a great place to start.
1. Remain calm.
"You want them to be able to pull from your calmness and safety, so do your best to remain grounded and be mindful of your own breathing," Dr. Schmidt says.
2. Use "we" statements.
She also explains that using "we" instead of "you" statements will assure the person who is experiencing the attack that they aren't alone. For example, you can say, "Let's take a few deep breaths together," instead of, "Take deep breathes! In and out like I'm doing."
3. Lead with empathy.
If you, too, have struggled with anxiety, use it to your benefit to help empathize with your loved one, but don't make it all about you. If they ask to be alone, step away and respect their wishes or if they're okay with you staying, provide compassion. "Now is not the time to talk about your own experience with anxiety or compare struggles, nor is it time to insert your opinions or minimize their experience," Dr. Schmidt says.
4. Communicate openly.
Knowing that they can count on you for reassurance and safety may help lessen the severity of anxiety or fear they are feeling. Dr. Schmidt suggests gently asking if they'd like to sit or lay down or go on a walk to get some fresh air. You can also offer positive verbal communication— "This feels scary, I know, but we are going to get through this." But first, ask if they feel comfortable receiving verbal support. The same goes for physical touch (i.e. placing your hands on their shoulders) if they feel comfortable receiving that kind of support.
5. Offer (but don't force) grounding techniques.
Sometimes, the most effective way to relieve anxiety is through grounding techniques, which encourage the person to focus less on their symptoms and more on their surroundings. A common example is having someone list objects they can see, touch, smell, and hear. If they prefer to keep their eyes closed, offer to walk them through a light stretch like rolling out their shoulders.
6. Try not to "fragilize."
"When loved ones experience anxiety, let them know that it's okay to have the emotion and that you are there for them," Shapiro says. However, do not, under any circumstances, attempt to "solve their anxiety-related problems." You are merely a pillar of support, not a licensed professional.
7. Check-in and debrief.
As the supporter, constructive criticism is your friend. At the end of the day, you want to be the most supportive you can be and the best way to do this is by hearing how the experience was for them and what, if anything, you could do differently should there be a next time, Dr. Schmidt explains. For instance, you can say: Can I do anything differently to support you if we experience this again? Or was there anything I did that was helpful?
8. Normalize therapy
Opening up to friends and family is a great step towards taking care of your mental health; however, there's only so much they can do. Shapiro's advice is to encourage them (in a loving, gentle manner) to get concrete help because "learning skills and methods to work through anxiety with a therapist can [truely] be transformative."