It’s not always easy to know how to support a friend or family member who has an anxiety disorder, especially if you’re worried that what you say or do might inadvertently make their anxiety worse.
Fear not: If someone has shared their struggles with you, it’s likely because they trust you. And that means just offering to sit with them and listen can be healing for your loved one.
“Friends and family are important in helping someone cope with an anxiety disorder mainly because they make the individual feel supported, accepted, and reassure them that they are not alone,” says Karol Darsa, PsyD, a trauma psychologist and the founder of the Reconnect Center, an integrative trauma treatment center in Los Angeles.
That support is especially meaningful given that, due to stigma, many anxiety-prone people don’t talk about their condition, which can make them feel isolated and increase their anxiety over the long-term.
“Anxiety is a real illness that, like many illnesses, can be treated. If we send signals that anxiety isn’t real or is not something that should be taken seriously, we run the risk of further stigmatizing the person, and that could lead them to avoid seeking care,” explains Benjamin F. Miller, PsyD, a primary care psychologist and an adjunct professor of psychiatry and public mental health and population sciences at Stanford University School of Medicine in California.
If someone you care about has an anxiety disorder, here are some of the best ways you can support them, according to experts.
1. Validate Their Feelings by Letting Them Know It’s Okay Not to Be Okay
Many people with anxiety struggle with frequent worries or fears about the past or the future, and these thought patterns aren’t easy to change, Dr. Miller says.
“Don’t ignore their feelings no matter how much you don’t get it,” Miller advises. “Let your loved one know that it’s okay to feel however they feel. Validate them and their emotions. Being there means being there in a nonjudgmental way.”
2. Don’t Tell Them to Calm Down
It may sound like an innocent comment, but telling someone with anxiety to simply stop feeling what they’re feeling isn’t a good idea. Although the person you care about may seem fine on the outside, they’re likely experiencing immense distress, fear, and physical symptoms caused by anxiety like sweating or racing heartbeat, which all feel very real to them, Dr. Darsa says.
“If you use phrases like ‘Stop worrying,’ they can feel invalidated and misunderstood, which could have a negative consequence,” says Darsa. “Moreover, if they feel judged and invalidated, it may prevent them from seeking help or working on their anxiety struggles.”
Instead, simply say something like, “I’m here if you’d like to talk about what’s on your mind,” or “I see you’re feeling anxious. What can I do to help right now?”
3. Encourage Them to Focus on Things They Can Change
Often people with anxiety see small problems as massive, even insurmountable hurdles. To help them gain some insight and perspective, don’t deny their worries. Acknowledge that while they may not be able to control the whole situation, there likely are aspects of the situation they do have some control over.
“Have a conversation about what’s controllable and not,” suggests Miller. “Sometimes anxiety comes about because we try to control things that we just simply can’t. Having that conversation can allow them to process their feelings and [recognize] what they can or can’t do about their worries.”
4. Help Them to Help Themselves
Another way to support a loved one with anxiety is to educate yourself on effective coping tools and skills. That way you can “encourage them to use the tools when they are anxious,” Darsa says.
In this way, you are supporting them to help themselves become calmer in moments when they feel their anxiety is worsening.
For instance, you might teach them “grounding exercises” that help redirect their focus away from whatever is making them anxious back to the here and now.
One grounding exercise suggested by the University of Toledo Counseling Center is to focus on their immediate physical environment (the room they are in, for example) and then name:
- Five things they see
- Four things they feel (such as “chair on my back” or “feet on the floor”)
- Three things they can hear
- Two things they can smell
- One good thing they can say about themself
In addition, if they’re willing to discuss their treatment options, you might encourage them to try cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Administered by trained mental health professionals, CBT is geared toward helping people identify and change the negative thinking and behavioral patterns that make them vulnerable to significant anxiety.
CBT is considered an “evidence based” treatment because there is so much research showing it’s effective for anxiety disorders. In just one example, a study published in November 2019 in JAMA Psychiatry found that CBT treatment reduced symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder in the short term — and that the reduction in symptoms could still be seen within 12 months after participants completed treatment.
5. Discourage the Use of Alcohol or Drugs to Cope With Anxiety
It’s not uncommon for people with anxiety disorders to drink or use drugs to try to relieve their symptoms or take the edge off daily stressors. Experts at the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) say that people with anxiety disorders are two to three times more likely than the general population to have an alcohol or other substance abuse disorder at some point in life.
For instance, people with social anxiety may turn to alcohol because they feel it lessens their anxiety, ADAA experts explain. But overdoing alcohol can have serious long-term consequences, including an additional mental health condition: alcohol use disorder.
If you’re concerned about your loved one’s alcohol or substance use, let them know what you’ve noticed in a gentle and nonjudgmental way, advises Miller.
“Talk about what’s going on (or not) and just listen,” he suggests. “People want to be heard and that may lead to more opportunities to address things like problem drinking.”
“If you notice a loved one using substances to cope with their anxiety, it’s important to encourage them to use healthier coping methods, such as mindfulness, meditation, exercise, or other forms of self-care,” adds Darsa.
And if you notice any symptoms of substance use disorders, per the Mayo Clinic, suggest that they reach out to their doctor or a mental health professional for help:
- Feeling that you need to use a substance regularly to be able to function
- Having problems at work or school
- Having a desire for the substance that supersedes all other thoughts
- Having trouble stopping drinking or using drugs
- Having withdrawal symptoms if you stop using the substance
- Needing more alcohol or drugs over time to get the same effect