Here are some ways you can actively show your support and help someone with anxiety.
1. Learn about the different types of anxiety and signs of them
“Anxiety is a natural emotion and physiological shift that occurs when people perceive potential harm toward oneself or others,” says psychologist Timothy Yen, PsyD. “Anxiety gears them up for a fight-or-flight response to address the danger, either to eliminate the threat or run away from it.”
Understanding the different types of anxiety — and the common signs and symptoms — can help you help your loved one. Here’s what you need to know.
Generalized anxiety disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is what typically first comes to mind when people think of anxiety. GAD is characterized by:
- chronic anxiety
- exaggerated worries and tension
A common panic disorder symptom is panic attacks.
“With panic attacks, it’s first important to learn the signs so that you can help your friend identify what’s happening to them,” says psychologist Heather Z. Lyons PhD.
Here are some signs to look out for:
- unexpected episodes of intense fear
- chest pain
- heart palpitations
- shortness of breath
- stomach probs like gas, cramping, or diarrhea
Social phobia (or social anxiety disorder)
Social phobia (aka social anxiety disorder) is characterized by:
- overwhelming anxiety
- excessive self-consciousness in everyday social situations
- fear of eating in front of others
- fear of public speaking
- fear of being in public
Keep in mind, symptoms can range from mild to severe. Some folks have no problem socializing in certain situations. But other folks can find any type of social setting to be triggering.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Common OCD symptoms include:
- recurring unwanted thoughts (obsessions)
- repetitive or ritualistic behaviors (compulsions)
These “rituals” tend to lend temporary anxiety relief. But failing to do them can trigger feelings of unease.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
PTSD can happen if someone is exposed to a traumatic event like:
- natural disasters
- military combat
- abuse of all kinds
Signs of anxiety to look for
Again, anxiety symptoms can vary from person to person. But there are some general signs to look out for:
- lack of focus
- frequent muscle clenching
- avoiding social situations
- teeth grinding
- seeking constant reassurance
- second-guessing themselves
- compulsive actions
- shortness of breath
- easily fatigued
- constantly expecting the worse
- jumping to conclusions
2. Provide validation
Sometimes a simple validation can make a big difference. That means taking the time to really listen to what they’re going through and acknowledging their feelings.
“Oftentimes we move too quickly toward reassurance that ‘everything is going to be okay,’” says Yen. This can underscore a person’s feelings and might make them feel judged.
Instead, Yen recommends first letting them know that you get where they’re coming from.
- Say: “I understand why you’re worried about this test. You’re concerned that failing could jeopardize your acceptance to your top school.”
- Don’t say: “C’mon, it’s just a test. You’re overreacting. You just need to chill out and study.”
Once your friend feels validated and heard, you can open the convo up a bit.
3. Try a grounding exercise
During a panic attack or anxiety episode, people might feel disconnected from the world around them. Grounding is a great way to refocus someone’s attention back to reality.
Here are some grounding techniques to try together:
Feel the floor beneath your feet
Gravity’s a trip, y’all. Since we can’t concentrate on everything at once, our selective attention doesn’t typically notice things like the feeling of the floor beneath our feet or the chair we’re sitting on. So, ask your friend if you could take a moment together to just notice the physical world that’s holding them up.
Focus on your breath
Breathwork is where it’s at. Exercises like Sama Vritti (aka equal breathing) can calm the mind and reduce racing thoughts. Try to inhale for 5 seconds then exhale for 5 seconds. Repeat as needed.
Listen to the world around you
Lyons recommends turning your friend’s attention to a repetitive sound or music. Just make sure it’s slow and soothing, like the hum of a heater or the sound of a soft piano piece. The consistency and repetitions can be very comforting.
Meditation is worth the hype. It’s a great way to reduce stress and alleviate anxiety. Ask your friend to participate in 10 minutes of silent meditation or guided imagery. Psst. Here’s a Greatist guide to meditation for anxiety.
4. Determine your support role
There are lots of different roles you can take to support a person with anxiety.
“When our loved ones are in distress, they often need us to either distract them by cheering them up, be with them by listening and ensuring our availability, or help them with what we can do for them,” says Lyons.
Here are examples of things you can say, depending on your role.
When you distract someone, you can offer ways to take their mind off their anxiety.
- “Let’s watch *insert fave escapist show* together, what do you say?”
- “Maybe we should go to yoga class.”
- “Let’s grab some food.”
When you do, you take direct action.
- “I’ll help you organize your closet.”
- “I have a really good therapist. I can ask for a referral for you.”
- “I’m going to pick up a pizza for you.”
Being can be as simple as letting them know you’re always there for them.
- “Do you want to talk about it?”
- “Do you want me to stop by? If not, do you want to FaceTime?”
- “You’re not a burden and I always have your back.”