How You Can Support Someone With Anxiety
And what to NEVER say...
Anxiety can be a horrible thing to experience, made all the worse by finding it difficult to convey to another person how to help or what it really feels like. Because when you can't see something, it's not always easy to empathise.
And as much as we all talk about how hard it is to have anxiety, it can also be really tricky to know how to help with a loved one: what to do and what not to say. So we asked Alex Hedger, a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist and Clinical Director at Dynamic You, to give us tips on how to help someone who has anxiety.
Validate their feelings
Regardless of whether you have anxiety or not, all anyone ever wants is for their upsetting feelings to be heard. Alex says: “The key thing is to 'validate' someone's emotion. This means showing that you've heard and are trying to understand their emotional experience - what it's like and what is triggering that feeling for them.”
Don’t make them feel their emotions are wrong
“Comments that can invalidate someone's emotional experiences should be avoided where possible. For example, 'pull yourself together', 'you're being ridiculous, there's nothing to be anxious about' etc. These tend to send a message that there is something 'wrong' with a particular emotion. Therapists would tend to steer clear of labelling any emotion as wrong, but instead would focus on the fact that someone is indeed feeling it, and explore the root causes and usefulness. Rather than whether it is 'right or wrong'.”
Let them decide how much help they need
When you don't experience anxiety, it can be easy to assume that someone needs a higher level of help that you can give them. But it's up to the person feeling it to decide.
Alex says: "Usually we would approach it from the perspective of whether the person themselves feels the levels of anxiety they are experiencing are reasonable or not. If they infrequently experience anxiety, or cope with it well, then they're less likely to identify it as a problem and so others shouldn't necessarily either. If they do identify it as a problem however then it's a good idea to seek an expert opinion. A Therapist will usually either look to normalising their experiences, which in itself is usually useful. Or, if they determine that there is a psychological disorder then they will provide the relevant treatment for it."
Let someone approach you with their experience
Alex notes that it can be tricky to know when someone is experiencing anxiety because it comes in different forms. He says: “This can vary from person to person, so there isn't a 'one size fits all' answer. Usually it's best to rely that people will share their experiences with others, if they want and feel comfortable to.”
Don’t put pressure on them...
Mental health charity Mind advises not to push someone to find a logical and practical solution if they don’t feel ready for it. They say: “Try not to put pressure on your friend or family member to do more than they feel comfortable with. It's really important to be patient, listen to their wishes and take things at a pace that feels okay for them.”
“It's understandable to want to help them face their fears or find practical solutions, but it can be very distressing for someone to feel they're being forced into situations before they feel ready. This could even make their anxiety worse. Try to remember that being unable to control their worries is part of having anxiety, and they aren't choosing how they feel.”
Try to put yourself in their shoes...
It can be incredibly hard to understand what something feels like if you have never experienced it yourself but Alex explains that it’s a type of emotion much like anger: “It's often difficult to define or describe an emotion to another person. This is compounded by everybody experiencing individual emotions in unique ways. Anxiety (the same as anger) is a threat-based emotion. So people often feel a sense of being on edge, or impending doom or disaster. Threat-based emotions tend to generate a strong urge to 'fight, flight or freeze', the last two being most associated with anxiety, and the first with anger.”
Realise that it can’t be explained away
It seems logical to try and tell someone that everything will be fine, but that’s not only the last thing someone wants to hear, but also totally pointless. Alex explains: “The amygdala, an older part of the human brain is largely involved in anxious responses. Whilst the neurobiology of anxiety can be a complex subject, it's important to know that people's amygdalae can be sensitised or desensitised to various triggers and life experiences. Because this part of the brain comes from further back in our evolution, it is not language based and doesn't directly respond to speech. This is one reason why we experience anxiety at times which seem inappropriate or puzzling - such as phobias.”
“Here, the anxious response is being generated by the amygdala, yet the 'rational' newer parts of the brain which process language realise the situation isn't dangerous. Yet, even so - it's very difficult to 'talk the anxiety away.'”
Understand that it’s no one’s fault
It can be easy to jump to the conclusion that you have done something to upset someone or that an incident has occurred to trigger a spell but Alex reveals it’s not always caused by anything you can logically think of. He says: “Anxiety is a normal human emotion. It's also a protective emotion. This means that feelings of anxiety that have kept humans alive over the generations, in the face of predators. From this perspective anxiety isn't a fault-based experience. But it is important to explore ways to manage unhelpful levels of it, if they're impacting your life.”
And now, take your mind off anxiety with some shade being thrown by Bob the Drag Queen....