Understanding The Facts: How to Help A Friend With Anxiety

When your friend has anxiety, it can be challenging to know how to help them if you’ve never experienced severe anxiety or panic attacks. One of the first things to know is that anxiety is oppressive at times. People with severe anxiety are not being dramatic. Their brain is reacting to something that they’re obsessing over or worried about, and it’s hard for them to deal with what their feeling. Have empathy for your anxious friend. Panic attacks are real, and they can make a person feel like they’re dying.

In this article, we’re going to talk about how to help somebody when they’re anxious, and how to be a good friend.

anxiety illustrations
*Image Source - http://home.bt.com

Be Non-Judgmental

Do not judge your friend who is dealing with anxiety. They are doing the best that they can at that moment. Don’t call them dramatic or overly sensitive because this is real to them. What they are experiencing is genuine whether it’s somatic symptoms such as shaking, trembling, even throwing up. Anxiety can cause your body to freak out. And it can be extremely overwhelming for the person dealing with it.

What do you do? You go with the flow and take your friend’s lead. You can ask your friend what they need. Say something along the lines of “how can I support you?” It’s not about you being a “bad friend” or a “good friend”  it’s about you being aware and being there for your anxious friend.

It’s Not About You

Don’t take it personally if your friend isn’t being “all there” or are short-tempered during an anxious moment. Eventually, if they are a good friend, they’ll apologize if they’ve done something wrong or have been irritable. Anxiety can be so overwhelming that it’s hard to be present at the moment. There are things that you can do to help, including doing grounding techniques with your friend.

Some people are sensitive to touch, and they might put their head in their hands or isolate from the experience. Others might want a hug or someone to hold their hand. And remember that it’s not about you. If they do something that feels rude at the moment, try not to take it personally because you didn’t do anything wrong. If your friend is a new friend, you will learn in time how to deal with their anxiety and personalize it over time.

Love Them

People with anxiety are human. They want love and acceptance and that ties into being non-judgmental and empathetic. Remind them that you are their friend, and you’re listening. Listening is underrated when it comes to friendship and mental health issues. Listening is crucial in all friendships. Listening can be compelling.

You Don’t Have To Solve The Problem

You don’t have to solve your friend’s problems. You can offer advice if they ask. You can tell them what you think, but don’t be offended if they don’t take your help. Remember that people with anxiety will likely repeat themselves, and they might not be aware of it. So try not to get frustrated if they say the same thing but use different words. They’re probably obsessing over an issue, and their mind can’t seem to let it go.

Physically Be There

Woman hugging friend who is grieving from loss

You want to be a supportive friend, but you also don’t want to be a crutch or enable your friend to believe they cannot help themselves. You could end up accidentally prolonging your friend’s anxiety and make it hard for them to develop coping skills. One way you can support your friend is to ask if you can come over and help them in person. Call or text (whatever they prefer) and ask, “hey, can I come over?”

There’s a balance, and you don’t want to drop what you’re doing whether that’s school or work to be there for your friend. But if you can spare a moment to meet them for coffee or come to their house, that can help them. If they say no, that’s okay too. You offering your support does mean something. Some people prefer to manage their anxiety alone, but the act of offering to be there is meaningful.

Avoid Telling Them To “Calm Down.”

When you tell an anxious person to “calm down,” it comes across as condescending. If they could calm down, they would. The nature of anxiety is that it feels like you are out of control. Instead of saying “calm down” or “don’t panic,” try asking them, “what can I do to help?” Everyone experiences anxiety differently and don’t assume you know what they need.

Sometimes your friend might want to talk out the issues they’re thinking about in their mind, and other times, they might want to catch their friend using a meditative or grounding exercise.

Remember, Stress Differs From Anxiety

You might be tempted to relate to your friend and say something like “I get it; I get stressed too.” Stress is different from anxiety. Stress is something that is a short-term issue, whereas anxiety is more overwhelming and pervasive. Anxiety can come out of nowhere, and some people are predisposed to it genetically, whereas stress is something all humans experience.

If you also have anxiety, it’s something you can commiserate with, but if you don’t know how anxiety feels it’s best not to assume and ask how your friend feels so you can understand.

They Can’t “Stop Thinking About It.”

Sometimes people tell those with anxiety to “stop thinking about it” or not to worry. While these comments are well-meaning, they’re not helpful. It’s not easy to stop worrying. What may be more helpful is a distraction. Ask your friend if they’d like to do something like go for a walk or even catch a movie.

Distraction can help some people with anxiety get out of their heads. Walking, whether it’s in nature or down a city street, it’s a great way to occupy your mind in a different way then overthinking and worrying.

You Are Not Alone

Remember that you are not alone. In addition to the person with anxiety, there are many others out there who are trying to support their anxious friends. You might be able to talk to those people and get some tips on how to help your friend. You don’t have to be your friend’s therapist; your job is to be a friend. And if you feel like you need to talk out these issues with your therapist, that’s okay.

Whether you work with an online therapist or someone in your local area, therapy can help you as a support in working out how to relate to your friend who lives with chronic anxiety.

Picture of Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

Pareen Sehat MC, RCC

Pareen’s career began in Behaviour Therapy, this is where she developed a passion for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy approaches. Following a Bachelor of Arts with a major in Psychology she pursued a Master of Counselling. Pareen is a Registered Clinical Counsellor (RCC) with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. She specializes in CBT and Lifespan Integrations approaches to anxiety and trauma. She has been published on major online publications such as - Yahoo, MSN, AskMen, PsychCentral, Best Life Online, and more.

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