Knowing how to help a friend with anxiety can be a challenge. One of the most difficult things about anxiety is that is often causes someone to withdraw from even their closest and most cherished relationships. Those around them can feel lost when it comes to finding ways to help, particularly if they've never experienced anxiety themselves.
If someone you love is anxious, there are certain things you can do to provide support that they might find difficult to articulate themselves.
The truth is, if you've never had an anxiety disorder you will never be able to fully understand what your friend is experiencing. And that’s okay too. Bear in mind that anxiety disorders often impact even the simplest aspects of the sufferer's everyday life, in a much different way to those normal anxieties each of us deal with from time to time. If you approach your friend from the angle that there’s a cut and dry ‘cure’ for their anxiety – ‘Just stop thinking about it!’, for example – they will probably feel misunderstood and continue to suffer in silence.
Here are a few simple things you can do to help a friend with anxiety or panic disorder that will allow you to show them that they’re not alone.
DO – Listen to them. If they want to talk about their anxiety, let them. But be gentle; don’t push them to discuss anything they’re not comfortable talking about. And try not to remind them about their anxiety at moments when it’s not relevant. Never assume you know what they need. It may look like they need a hug but they actually need their space - or it may seem like they want to be left alone when actually they need your company. Try to learn their triggers and the signs that they could be on the verge of a panic attack so you can remove them from a situation if needs be.
DO – Encourage activity. Book a yoga class, try out a rock climbing session or just go for a long walk in the fresh air. Not only can exercise help manage anxiety, but being around a friend is a great way to distract the anxiety sufferer from how they’re feeling and keep them in the present moment.
DO – Learn when to take them out of a situation. Sometimes it’s the environment itself that can exacerbate anxiety or a panic attack. If you’re in a new, stressful or hectic situation and they tell you they’re feeling anxious or you can see symptoms take hold, let them know that it’s more than OK to leave. It may be helpful to take control and lead them out yourself.
DO – Let them know you love them. Whether it’s a random “I saw X and thought of you” text, a check-in phone call before bed or forgiving them when they cancel plans, let them know you still love them and that you’re not going anywhere.
DO – Focus on the small things. If your friend is having a high-anxiety day, bringing their focus back to the small details around them can really help. Get them to focus on their breathing, on the feel of their clothes, or the temperature of the room. Once they’ve calmed down, you can pick out the smaller aspects of what it's making them anxious. Did a money concern trigger the anxiety attack? Suggest helping them make a financial plan in bite-sized chunks and celebrate their victories (however small) at every step of the way.
And finally, DON’T – Absorb their anxiety. If you also suffer from anxiety, make sure you’re dealing with your own mental health first. If not, you could end up unknowingly feeding each other anxieties when you're together – and this benefits no one. Your wellbeing is just as important as theirs so if you’re also suffering, first take a step back and focus on yourself before you assume the role of being an emotional rock for someone else. It’s OK not to be OK - and that goes both ways.
If you or a loved one is struggling with anxiety, speaking to a therapist could really help you to understand and manage your anxious feelings, and most importantly, feel better. Speak to one of our team to get help to find a therapist today.
Jennifer McNeill is a London-based writer with an MA in Sociocultural Linguistics who enjoys pretending to be vegan in between eating cheese.