We’re not going to sugarcoat it: Trying to help a friend or family member who struggles with anxiety can be really tricky. Especially if you’re not a super anxious person, navigating what to say (and what not to say) is kind of awkward. You want to help, of course, but you have no idea how (you aren’t a therapist, after all). That’s why we checked in with four experts in the mental health field for their tips on how to help someone with anxiety, from listening compassionately to not putting pressure on yourself to fix your loved one’s issues.
1. Just Listen, Don’t Fix
If a friend comes to you about their struggles with anxiety, it’s not the time to channel your best therapist impression—that’s not your job. “The first step in helping a friend with anxiety is simply allowing them to feel heard and felt,” says Dr. Mike Dow Ph.D., Psy.D. with Field Trip Health. “Start by just listening and asking gentle questions about it. Your primary job is simply to understand them—but in a deep way.” Here are some helpful phrases he suggests:
“Tell me more.”
“Oh my gosh, that sounds really scary.”
“Do you have a sense of where it comes from?”
“What does that feel like?”
“How long have you felt like this?”
“I'm listening...go on.”
He continues, “Remember: Even as babies, human beings’ nervous systems regulate through interpersonal connection. As we become adults, that need doesn't go away. By holding this space, you're helping your friend's nervous system to regulate itself.”
2. Understand That Anxiety Isn’t One-Size-Fits-All
Anxiety triggers vary wildly from person to person, as do solutions for calming an anxious mind. “For some, perhaps they’d appreciate you joining them in a moment of mindfulness,
Dr. Anisha Patel-Dunn, the Chief Medical Officer at LifeStance Health, tells us. “Other people may prefer you take a walk around the block with them or simply offer a safe space to talk and be heard.” It’s OK, she explains, to ask the person’s preference so you can support them in a way that will be most beneficial for them.
3. Don’t Suggest That They “Just Calm Down”
“Anxiety can range from jitters before an exam or interview to a full-on panic attack or phobic reaction,” says Haley Perlus, PhD. “When you’re trying to support someone going through anxiety, never trivialize their problem, or tell them to just ‘calm down.’” Think about it: If they could relax on their own, they would not be experiencing the anxiety.
4. Ask Them to Outline a Worst-Case Scenario
Here’s another suggestion from Perlus: “Whatever the scenario is, ask the person what about the particular situation is scaring them. Ask them to outline a ‘worst-case scenario’ for you, walk them through contingency plans and reinforce to them that the fear of a situation is typically greater than the reality.” Ask them to call upon past situations where they have had success in the feared situation and ask them what you can do to make them feel more comfortable.
5. Don’t Put Pressure on Yourself to Have All the Answers
As much as you’d love to solve an anxious loved one’s problems, understand that you’re only a human doing the best that they can. “Be compassionate with yourself and acknowledge that you aren’t expected to ‘fix’ or ‘solve’ the situation,” notes Dr. Patel-Dunn. “While there are many different things you can do to help a loved one experiencing anxiety, it’s important to remember that the support of a licensed therapist may be beneficial for those who experience symptoms of anxiety that interfere with daily life.”
6. Be Flexible
For people who are familiar with their anxiety triggers and feel comfortable sharing them with you, Dr. Patel-Dunn recommends thinking about how you can balance their needs in shared activities. “For example, if you know that your friend experiences an uptick in their anxiety in large crowds (this is a very common experience given the ongoing pandemic), you might avoid asking them to join you at a packed concert and instead suggest a socially distanced picnic at a quiet park.” Ask if they’re comfortable sharing their boundaries and respect them.
7. Stay Grounded
Perlus tells us that emotions can be contagious, so as a non-anxious person, the more you can stay grounded in your emotional and mental state, you give your friend an opportunity to move from an anxious to a non-anxious state. “Just by staying at peace and displaying positive emotions, you create the possibility of bringing your friend out of the dark side into the light,” she says. Shauna Springer, Ph.D., a relationship and trauma expert, adds that it’s helpful to be a source of predictable social connection. “Some sense of routine or rhythm in life can help us manage anxiety,” she explains. “You may be able to offer the gift of social connection through a weekly virtual chat or Saturday morning coffee to a friend who is struggling with anxiety.” She adds that knowing that they have a safe person to talk to on a regular basis can be a wonderful support for coping for chronic anxiety.