How To Help Someone With Anxiety: Practical Tips And Techniques
Updated December 18, 2018
Reviewer Lauren Guilbeault
It isn't easy to know how to help someone with anxiety. Sometimes, what seems the easiest answer actually makes things worse for your loved one. There are several things you can do to help them survive the moment and work towards decreasing their anxiety in the long run. Here are some tips and techniques to help you do it.
The First Things You Need To Do
When someone you care about is suffering from extreme anxiety, you may begin to feel anxious yourself. It can be an uncomfortable situation for everyone. Instead of letting your own worries or irritation take hold, focus on your loved one's needs. Before you try to take control of the situation, here are three things you should do.
Start By Asking
Ask the anxious person what they need from you right now rather than taking it on yourself to make those decisions on your own. Maybe they only need you to be there with them. Perhaps they need you to hold their hand. They may need practical help, too, like help with a difficult problem they don't know how to solve. Don't do anything right away. Instead, take this time to listen to them.
Learn About Anxiety Disorder
If your loved one seems to suffer from anxiety often, they may have an anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, or social anxiety disorder. You can't make such a diagnosis, but you can learn to recognize the symptoms. Common symptoms of anxiety include:
- Muscle tension or twitching
- Rapid heartrate
- Increased sweating
- Trouble concentrating
- Digestive problems
- Avoiding activities that provoke anxiety
- Obsessing about fears
- Repetitive behaviors
- Fear of going crazy
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pains
Encourage Them to Get Treatment
There's a lot you can do to help someone with anxiety, but you don't have to face this problem alone. If your loved one decides to get treatment, you both can get the support and professional help of a doctor or therapist. Let them know they can overcome their anxiety with appropriate treatment. Encourage them to seek that treatment as soon as possible so they can enjoy a more pleasant, enjoyable life.
What Not To Do
Often, when someone sees that a loved one is suffering from anxiety, they rush around trying to "fix" things. They want to be their loved one's hero, conquering all the dangers they fear. Or, they focus on fixing their loved one, telling them how to feel or behave. Here are some things you definitely should not do if you're trying to figure out how to help someone with depression and anxiety.
Criticizing someone about their anxiety won't make their worries go away. Instead, they may develop new fears, like that you'll leave them or stop caring about them. Besides that, they know how they feel. When you criticize them for their anxiety, which they probably believe they can't control, you seem to be judging them for being who they are.
Don't Minimize Their Distress
Avoid downplaying the distress they're feeling. Your saying that they're overreacting or inventing problems may make them hold onto those fears even more strongly. Their thoughts and feelings are very real to them. When you deny them, you seem to be rejecting your loved one.
Don't Tell Them To Just Calm Down
The answer may seem simple to you. If they would only calm down, everything would be fine, you think. You need to realize that the thing they're afraid of is only a symptom of the larger problem. If they could calm down that easily, they wouldn't have anxiety problems at all. They don't need a general demand to calm down. What they need are small, simple, actionable steps to make that happen.
Don't Humiliate Them
Humiliating someone who is suffering extreme anxiety is not only mean, it's also unproductive. It can increase their anxiety. This is especially true for people with social anxiety who are intentionally humiliated in public.
Don't Say You Understand If You Don't
Admit that you don't know what it feels to have a panic attack. Let them know that you don't have personal experience with constant worry and fear. Tell them in a nonjudgmental way that this is their experience and you won't try to guess what they're feeling.
Don't Take Over All Their Responsibilities
While it's good to be helpful and supportive, avoid taking over responsibilities that they can take care of themselves. Suppose they're afraid to drive. If you take over getting them everywhere they need to go, it sends the message that you think they really aren't capable of driving at all. They typically respond by becoming even more anxious about getting behind the wheel.
Don't Give Them Drugs Or Alcohol To Calm Them
If you feel powerless to help someone you love deal with their anxiety, you may think it would help to give them illicit drugs or alcohol. Drugs and alcohol do affect the nervous system, and your loved one may feel better for a moment. However, their anxiety may return quickly and become even worse afterwards. They may also develop a dependency or addiction that makes their life even more unmanageable.
How You Can Help Someone With Anxiety
Now that you know what not to do, what can you do? Here are several things you can do to help.
Stay Calm Yourself
Sometimes, when someone is having symptoms of anxiety, the people they're with pick up on their anxiety as well. Without even realizing it, you may become nervous in response to their symptoms. So you need to check yourself and make sure you're as calm as you can be. Use some of the tips here to manage your own anxiety before you try to help the other person.
Practice Relaxation Techniques Together
Suggest practicing relaxation techniques with your loved one. Because you're doing them, too, you show your loved one that you are on an equal plane. You can do a systematic muscle relaxation exercise by lying on your back, tensing and releasing one muscle group at a time from your feet to your head. Another technique is deep breathing. Sit comfortably, close your eyes, and breathe slowly and deeply in and out.
Listen To Music
Music has been used throughout history to calm nervousness and anxiety. In a 2001 study, researchers found that playing music for people awaiting cardiac catherization decreased their anxiety substantially. If your loved one is feeling symptoms of anxiety, try turning on some gentle music.
Practice Active, Nonjudgmental Listening
The most important thing you can do for someone who has anxiety is to listen to them closely without judging them. Active listening is an important skill that will help you establish trust and support with someone going through the frightening experience of anxiety. Show your concern, paraphrase their words to make sure you understand, and give them brief affirmations or nonverbal cues that let them know you're still listening.
Give Positive Reinforcement For Healthy Behavior
Anxiety can snowball if you encourage anxious behaviors. The good news is that healthy behaviors decrease the distressing thoughts and feelings of anxiety. You can't force them to behave in healthy ways. What you can do, though, is to acknowledge when they choose behaviors despite their anxious feelings.
Congratulate Them For Improvements
You'll be disappointed if you expect someone with anxiety to overcome it immediately. It takes time and it is a gradual process. So instead of comparing their behavior to a lofty ideal, congratulate them for their improvements. When they set and accomplish small goals for managing their anxiety, congratulate them for the progress they make.
Offer Foods That Help With Anxiety
It's tempting to give your loved one a special treat to distract them from their anxiety. Usually, people think first of sweet treats like candy or ice cream. However, sugary foods cause physical changes that increase anxiety. Instead, try these foods that help with anxiety:
- Dark chocolate
- Green tea
Suggest Vitamins That Help With Anxiety
You can help your loved one by suggesting vitamins that help with anxiety. The most helpful vitamins for anxiety and panic disorders are the B vitamins. B6 is especially helpful, and it works best when you add magnesium. B9 helps people with depression and anxiety. B1 stabilizes blood sugar to reduce anxiety. B3 helps with anxiety by assisting in the synthesis of serotonin. By supporting the adrenal glands, B5 reduces stress and anxiety as well.
Encourage Them To Get Enough Sleep
When someone is anxious, it can cause sleep disturbances including insomnia. There is also evidence that it works the other way around, too. That is, not getting enough sleep can bring on or increase anxiety. You can help by encouraging them to get enough sleep. You can also set the stage for a peaceful night's sleep by creating a calm and restful sleep environment for them.
Exercise With Them
Exercise may have a very beneficial effect on reducing anxiety. Some experts say that it only takes a 21-minute walk to reduce anxiety significantly, especially for those with mild anxiety. You can help someone with anxiety by taking a walk or going to an exercise class with them.
Support Them In Staying Connected
Anxiety often leads to social isolation. This is especially true for people with social anxiety, but it can also happen for people with all kinds of anxiety disorders. Your loved one may become anxious around friends and family, so they may avoid those social interactions. Go with them to social events often to give them support as they stay connected with their social support system.
Take Care Of Your Needs Too
Although you may be most concerned with how to help someone with anxiety, it's important to take care of your own needs, too. Set limits and establish boundaries so that you don't become depressed or anxious yourself. Learn how to help with anxiety, certainly, but also make sure you're meeting your own physical, emotional, and social needs.
If someone close to you is suffering from anxiety, you may find yourself struggling with mental health issues of your own. The best thing you can do if the stress of dealing with someone's anxiety is keeping you from functioning in healthy ways is to get help. A counselor can offer support and teach you more techniques for dealing with anxiety and depression. They can help you come to your own understanding of the relationship so that you can take positive steps to improve it.
You can talk to a licensed counselor at BetterHelp.com for help with anxiety and the problems related to it. After filling out a quick questionnaire, you'll be matched with a therapist well-suited to helping you as an individual or you and your loved one as a couple. With the right help, you can become calmer, more focused on health, and better able to function in the face of personal and relationship stresses.