Watching someone in our lives struggle with anxiety isn’t easy. Mental health is a touchy subject, and as much as we want to help, we don’t want to say the wrong thing or do anything to make it worse.
Anxiety can be overwhelming for those experiencing it, especially if they don’t know where to turn. Many people aren’t consciously aware it’s happening, they dismiss it as stress and put it under the deal with it at a later date. It’s only when they have a panic attack that they take a step back and realize it’s a problem that needs to be addressed.
While it’s always a good idea to encourage someone dealing with anxiety to seek professional help, you don’t have to be a therapist or mental health professional to provide support. By understanding what triggers anxiety, what it really is, and the signs to look for, you’ll know when and how to help.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is your body responding in the right way at the wrong time, Katya Learexplains LCMHC, a licensed consultant in Charlotte, North Carolina.
We’ve all been equipped with a fight-or-flight response, an automatic reaction that kicks off in the body when we sense danger to prompt us to flee to safety or defend ourselves against a threat, she says.
When this reaction occurs, it is then that panic and nerves set in. That rush of energy you feel is adrenaline pumping through your body, which causes a racing heart and sweaty palms.
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I say the flight or flight response is a gift because, while uncomfortable, it’s critical to our survival, it keeps us safe, Lear adds. However, some of us have this response triggered more quickly than others, due to our natural biology or past experiences. When this response occurs at unnecessary times, say, before a job interview, we tend to call it anxiety.
At its most basic level, anxiety is a focused concern about the future. His apprehension about something that hasn’t occurred and may or may not happen in the future, Dr. Catherine Jackson, a licensed clinical psychologist and certified neurotherapist. When stress goes on for too long, it goes into overactive mode and begins to affect and change brain function, including the release of stress hormones.
This ongoing stress is what causes chronic anxiety. And when anxiety goes untreated, it can lead to other serious mental health problems like depression.
Understand the signs of anxiety
There are physical and mental signs of anxiety. Some of the more common physical symptoms include:
Shortness of breath
Mentally, the most easily recognized signs of anxiety are excessive and prolonged worrying or a sense of panic or fear that something bad will happen, Lear says. I think that’s what most of us imagine when we think about anxiety. However, not everyone can clearly indicate a concern when they are anxious.
If so, bodily sensations are the main indicator of anxiety, explains Lear. For example, gastrointestinal discomfort or frequent tension headaches. Others may notice that their anxiety manifests itself as irritability. They may seem ready to get angry, but that anger is rooted in fear.
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When should you help someone with anxiety?
Having open conversations about early-stage stress and anxiety could potentially keep people from downplaying their symptoms and getting worse over time, she says Dr. Leela R. Magavi, MDHopkins-trained psychiatrist and regional medical director for community psychiatry.
In other words, the sooner the better.
Dr Bruce WexlerProfessor of Psychiatry at Yale University provides three scenarios for when you should intervene:
When you see someone in significant discomfort
When it affects an individuals ability to function mentally or physically
If it persists for more than a week
However, it’s important to keep in mind that taking action doesn’t mean you have to try to make their anxiety go away nor do you have to make a big deal out of it, she says. Amy Morin, LCSW, psychotherapist and international bestselling author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do.
It’s about guiding them in the right direction.
How to help someone with anxiety
If someone you love has anxiety, it only makes sense that you want to help them. Here’s how to do it.
1. Ask how you can offer support
The best course of action is to be direct and have an open and honest conversation.
Ask if there is anything you can do. Sometimes, people feel anxious when they don’t know how to solve a problem, Morin explains. One solution could be as simple as helping them make an appointment or creating a plan.
If you’re not sure how to approach the topic, remember if you’re from a compassionate place you’re going to stumble upon.
Having observed your loved one’s patterns of instability can provide insight into their struggle, says Sue English, a licensed family therapist and owner of English Meadows Counseling Services. It’s more uncomfortable to watch someone you’re close to battle anxiety than to have the thoughtful conversation of curiosity about how they experience these feelings and how you might provide support.
When you understand the patterns of emotional instability, you’ll have a clearer understanding of what this person needs to calm their nerves. This could be anything from verbal reassurance to physical support, something as simple as a hug can go a long way.
The opposite of anxiety is peace, explains English. What is it that brings peace to someone? Help them be mindful, go for a walk outside, have a cup of hot chocolate and just be there to talk and remind them that they are not alone.
2. Try talking about something that isn’t related to their anxiety
If the person is able to talk about a pleasant topic for a few minutes, their anxiety may decrease enough that they’re able to think more clearly, Morin says. In the short term, distraction can be extremely beneficial.
It’s important to note that there are different types of anxiety and different levels of severity. That’s why it’s best to avoid giving specific anxiety advice, like “take a few deep breaths” or “stop thinking about it,” adds Morin. And listening to advice like that may not be helpful in their specific case, and their anxiety may increase if your strategies don’t help.
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3. Listen more, talk less
While creating an open dialogue is important, it’s just as important to know when to listen. “In trying to help someone with anxiety, people tend to try to help by saying things that might work if you’re a little nervous,” she says. Caroline Maden, PhD, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. But it won’t work if you suffer from anxiety.
Some things Madden recommended Not saying include:
It is not a big deal. This is minimizing their fear. They will end up getting mad at you and then discussing how bad something is.
Take it easy. If they had the ability to calm down, they would.
Instead, she advises saying
I see this is really upsetting you. What do you think your options are?
What’s the worst case scenario?” followed by how likely this is to happen?
Have you been able to handle this kind of thing before?
4. Create a safe space to share emotions
Establishing a safe and judgment-free platform is essential.
Checking in with loved ones often can create a sense of security, even if loved ones don’t reciprocate emotionally, says Dr. Magavi. If you live nearby, asking loved ones to go on a weekly walk or engage in some form of physical activity can help ease your anxiety. If you live far away, it would be helpful to schedule a daily check-in to discuss emotions.
Staying in touch is one of the simplest yet most effective ways to offer support and show that person you care.
Go ahead, read on the 12 best apps for anxiety.
Katie Lear, LCMHC, licensed consultant in Charlotte, North Carolina
Catherine Jackson, licensed clinical psychologist and certified neurotherapist
Harvard Health: Recognize and relieve the physical symptoms of anxiety
Sue English, licensed family therapist and owner of English Meadows Counseling Services
Bruce WexlerProfessor of Psychiatry at Yale University
Amy Morin, LCSW, psychotherapist and international bestselling author
Leela R. Magavi, MD, Hopkins-trained psychiatrist and regional medical director for community psychiatry
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