Last week we talked about how to talk to your loved ones about anxiety, which can be quite intimidating for anxiety sufferers. But what if you’re on the other end of this conversation? It can be very difficult when you have a friend or family member who suffers from anxiety. You might be unsure of what to say or how to act. Perhaps you worry that you’ll end up doing more harm than good.
You may even feel helpless knowing that your loved one is in pain and you can’t do anything to change it. But the reality is that anxiety sufferers often feel misunderstood and isolated, and by simply being a supportive, non-judgmental presence in your loved one’s life, you can make a huge difference. Here are a few important tips for helping a loved one cope with anxiety.
1. Don’t generalize based on your own experience.
Just because you wouldn’t be anxious in a particular situation doesn’t invalidate what your loved one feels. Statements such as, “Just stop worrying about it” or “Relax!” will not make a difference in her anxiety. Furthermore, this kind of attitude may give your loved one the impression that you’re judging her or make her wonder if there’s anyone who will understand – which only increases anxiety and a sense of isolation.
2. Do ask for specific ways you can help.
It may be difficult for your loved one to discuss his anxiety with you — even if he’s the one who brought it up. He may not know or be able to convey what he needs from you, but you can ask if there is anything specific you can do or not do to alleviate the anxiety or prevent its onset (within reason – more on this in a moment). You will feel better knowing there is a tangible way for you to help, and your loved one will feel reassured knowing you really are there for him.
3. Don’t treat your loved one any differently.
Unless she asks you to, do not change the way you interact with your loved one. Many people with anxiety or other disorders fear the stigma associated with mental illness and worry about their friends and family treating them differently if they find out. It’s a good idea to pay attention to how she reacts to your words and actions, but don’t feel as though you need to walk on eggshells just because your loved one has disclosed her struggle with anxiety.
4. Don’t be an enabler.
It’s wonderful that you want to be supportive, but there is a line between being there for your loved one and being too accommodating, which allows him to remain engulfed in his anxiety. Instead, you want to be supportive while also encouraging your loved one to take healthy steps toward overcoming his anxiety. Giving in to excessive requests for reassurance or participating in anxiety rituals is enabling your loved one and only delaying the recovery process. If you have previously given in, begin to set boundaries and explain them to your loved one firmly but compassionately. Taper off your participation in these behaviors and remain consistent.
5. Do encourage healthy coping techniques.
It is important to encourage your loved one to take care of herself and to do what she needs to do to be healthy. Urge her to seek treatment if she hasn’t already. Join your loved one for a yoga class, a hike, or another enjoyable physical activity. Invite her to meet you and a couple friends for an activity that won’t aggravate her anxiety but will foster a sense of connection with others, such as chatting over tea or going to a movie.
These are only a few of the ways you can provide invaluable support to your loved one. If you have other strategies that have helped, or if you yourself suffer from anxiety and have suggestions, leave a comment below!