When you suffer from anxiety, it can sometimes seem like you spend half of your life trying to explain to close ones how you’re feeling. In fact, being told to “calm down” is one of the worst mistakes others can make when you’re panicking, so we decided to delve deeper into how to help people with anxiety. A whopping 40 million adults in the United States suffer from some form of anxiety disorder, so it’s likely someone you know is affected, whether it’s a friend, a family member, or even your partner. The good news is there are helpful ways to support them through a small moment of anxiety to even an all-out panic attack. (By the way, if you’re reading this, you’ve already taken the first step.)
“We have all experienced physical pain, so it’s easy to empathize when you know someone is injured,” says Barrie Sueskind, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles who specializes in anxiety. “Anxiety is harder to understand because its roots aren’t always clear.” Anxiety is a survival mechanism that is meant to keep us safe—when the brain perceives danger, it tells the nervous system to shift into high alert. Sueskind says that those who suffer from anxiety may find it reassuring to know that anxiety develops for a good reason, and it may have protected them at some point in time. Although, that’s not to say it’s not frustrating when your anxiety becomes paralyzing, and that’s when you need support the most. Since each person with anxiety is different, we decided to poll an expert, as well as some of our readers, to see some of the best ways to help people with anxiety. We swear these tips are worth writing down.
THE EXPERT SAYS:
Watch Your Language
“Telling someone ‘calm down’ or ‘don’t worry’ can send the message that you don’t believe the anxiety is real,” says Sueskind. One reader agrees, saying: “Anxiety is very real and can sometimes make you think you are dying.” She insists being supportive includes refraining from using phrases like “stop worrying” or “just get over it.” Instead, actively listen to your loved one and validate their feelings if they want to talk.
Encourage Them to Find a "Safe Place"
You can help your loved one by helping them recall a safe place or haven in their minds that they can visualize when they find themselves overly stressed. “The more details they can provide for themselves, the greater the soothing effect on their nervous system,” says Sueskind. “I suggest they practice visiting this place often in their minds so they can more easily call upon it when they need it as an antidote to anxiety.”
Try "Grounding" Together
Doing this exercise along with the person experiencing anxiety will likely make them feel supported. First find a comfortable, seated position, and note the firmness of a chair or the floor under your feet, says Sueskind. Breathing slowly and sensing something holding you in place can produce a calming effect.
Make a List of Resources
When you experience anxiety, oftentimes your mind jumps to the worst-case scenario. To combat this, encourage them to imagine their worst fears, and then write down what or who would help them cope and get through it. “Instead of allowing your worries to loop inside your mind and convince you they are insurmountable, writing is a way of releasing your thoughts,” suggests Sueskind.
Try yoga, meditation, or go for a calming walk together. If the weather is nice, indulge yourselves in some fresh air—Sueskind says that being outdoors can help reduce anxiety. You must remember, however, that anxiety can be a hard thing for anyone to tackle on their own. Therapy is always an option worth considering if they need a little extra help, she says.
Create a "Holding Space"
One reader says that she and her partner both experience anxiety and have come to find it helps to have your fears confirmed and hear that they’re valid (at least for them). She explains that they say something like this to the other: “I can understand why you’d feel so overwhelmed—that sounds really intense.” This allows her and her partner to feel like they’re understood, even if their fears are not totally logical at the moment. She calls it a “holding place” or “safe space of understanding.”
Try Some Magic Words
Another reader swears this statement worked when others said it to her, and now she uses it when a friend experiences anxiety. “Anxiety makes everything feel urgent. You don’t have to figure this out now. It can wait until tomorrow.”
Discuss Their Needs During a Calm Time
Instead of asking a loved one with anxiety what they need in the middle of a panic attack, have a conversation on a day when they’re feeling calm. One reader muses: "I try to learn about my friends’ anxiety in moments when they’re feeling calm to educate myself about how best to help them when they’re in crisis. For example, some people are comforted by an arm around the shoulder; others prefer no physical contact. If they’re having a panic attack, I don’t want to be like, ‘what do you need?’ or ‘how can I help you?’ I just want to be able to do it."