At different stages of life, many people experience anxiety, whether it's starting school (at any age), going to a new place, or dealing with a health concern. As friends, family, or colleagues, we can make a difference by offering understanding and support.
So, how can you support loved ones dealing with anxiety? First, recognize that anxiety is a natural human emotion, not a flaw or weakness. It helps us perceive threats, navigate social interactions, and stay vigilant against deception and danger. Having some caution and concern is beneficial. However, for many it can develop into harmful patterns, such as overthinking, avoidance, or perfectionism. These strategies might temporarily ease anxiety but can worsen it in the long run.
Let's explore some practical and caring ways to help someone with anxiety.
1. Understand differences in how anxiety manifests Our evolutionary response to fear includes fight, flight, or freeze reactions. Different people have dominant responses, such as avoiding conversations, people or situations (freeze or flight) or being irritable and argumentative (fight). Understanding how anxiety can present itself helps us empathize with their behaviors. Observing their anxiety patterns allows us to be more supportive and understanding.
2. Match your support to their preferences and style It's crucial to ask people about their preferred support instead of assuming. Research suggests those with avoidant attachment styles respond well to concrete practical support, while those with secure or preoccupied styles prefer emotional support. Tailoring your support based on understanding their anxiety patterns and attachment styles is essential in close relationships.
3. Find ways to make use of any insight they have into their anxiety
Help your loved one recognize their anxiety-driven habits, such as ruminating over past interactions, nail biting, avoiding certain situations, etc. Trust and open communication are essential, but ensure they are comfortable with your observations.
4. Help someone who is anxious to observe their thinking
To be a helpful support person, educate yourself about anxiety using cognitive-behavioral models. You can use techniques to assist your loved one dealing with anxiety. Anxious people often think of worst-case scenarios, so try asking them three questions: What's the worst that could happen? What's the best that could happen? What's most realistic? Avoid excessive reassurance; instead, emphasize their coping abilities. Remind them that they have control over stopping negative thoughts and control in their actions but not in others' responses or behaviour.
5. Offer support, but don’t take over
In anxiety, avoidant behavior can be reinforced if we do things for our loved ones. True support means helping them help themselves, not taking over tasks. For example, you can offer to accompany them to therapy if they set up the appointment, or brainstorm therapist options without making the choice for them.
An exception is when severe depression accompanies anxiety, where they may need more hands-on help for survival. In most cases, avoid taking control or providing excessive reassurance. Offer support while encouraging them to face their challenges independently. If they struggle to control their anxious thoughts or behaviors, consider recommending a Registered Clinical Counsellor for help.
6. If someone has a more serious anxiety problem, avoid stigmatizing them
Supporting individuals dealing with serious issues like panic disorder, major depression disorder, post-traumatic stress, or obsessional thinking can be challenging. Reassure them that their core identity remains unchanged despite their struggles and encourage them to stay connected to their interests and hobbies. If you have a friend with conditions like agoraphobia (fear of being in open or crowded places) or disordered eating patterns, be accepting and avoid making them feel isolated. Respect their limitations without shaming or pushing them. Acceptance and understanding are crucial in such situations.
7. Take care of yourself, too Your goal is to help, not cure or relieve their anxiety. Avoid taking too much responsibility and recognize your own capacity to offer support. Set reasonable limits on your support, and remember that shorter, meaningful conversations are more effective. It's okay to prioritize your own self-care.
By implementing these practical strategies, you become a valuable support for
your loved ones who are experiencing anxiety.