What to say to someone with anxiety

by Dr Jodi Richardson on Wednesday 08 June 2022

3 min read

Though there are different types of anxiety disorders, they all have the same underlying foundation: excessive worry and fear that can make daily life feel like a battle. There may be a point where we experience a friend or family member going through anxiety and it can feel quite helpless to see someone you care about in pain and not know how to respond appropriately. ­­

With expert advice from Dr Jodi Richardson, here are some ways you can respond to help a friend in need.

When my best friend called and asked me if I could clear my calendar the following week and join her on a trip to the Bahamas after a late travel buddy cancellation, I had to say no. I had Covid and knew there was no chance of testing negative in time for international travel. I was devastated. My husband saw how upset I was and felt it. That’s what happens when we care about someone, a part of our brain reacts as if, in some way, what’s happening to our friend or family member, is happening to us. It hurts, and we want to help. In a loving but misguided attempt to alleviate my disappointment, he said “at least you’ll be out of isolation in time to see Hamilton”.

Not. Helping.

It can be hard knowing how to respond when a friend or family member is experiencing big emotions. It can be even more difficult when anxiety is at play given how common, challenging and contagious it is.

When someone we care about is anxious, we too can become anxious making it more difficult to help. When our anxiety rises, we can react and jump into advice and action mode. We might start problem solving or sharing the reasons why they shouldn’t feel the way they do. It’s well-meaning advice but can leave the person we care about feeling misunderstood, invalidated and more anxious. We won’t get it right all the time, we’re human! But there are helpful ideas to keep in mind.

Instead of reacting, the following strategies guide a response that is supportive, loving and helps our friends and family move through anxiety.

Empathy first

A powerful approach when responding to an anxious friend or family member is ‘empathy first’. Empathy is a first step to helping settle a nervous system in fight or flight mode. When we see things from our friend’s perspective and respond with empathy, we might say things like ‘thank you so much for sharing this with me’, or ‘that must be really hard, I’m sorry you’re going through this right now’ or, in the words of Brené Brown, ‘I don’t even know what to say right now I’m just so glad you told me’.

Calm is contagious, too

One of the most beautiful things we can do to help someone we care about move through anxiety is to share our calm. This will happen naturally as their mirror neurons are activated helping them to mirror the regulated state of our nervous system. To enhance this nurturing effect, we can take some lovely deep breaths to support our own nervous system to remain calm and bring our attention to the present moment so whoever needs us has our undivided attention.

Anxiety happens, what happens next is what matters most

Anxiety is common. And whether it’s the normal variety that settles after a stressful event passes, or the kind that is more frequent and challenging, it’s helpful for anyone experiencing anxiety to have a way of moving forward. A powerful acronym to keep in mind when supporting an anxious friend or family member is F.A.C.E. It’s a strategy developed by Dr Russ Harris for the World Health Organisation to support our global community experiencing stress and anxiety at the height of the pandemic.

  • F  Focus on what you can control
  • A  Acknowledge thoughts and feelings
  • C  Come back into your body using your senses
  • E  Engage in what’s important

The experience of anxiety can feel awful. I know. Anxiety and I have been acquainted for a very long time. But it’s not the feeling of anxiety that closes in the walls of life, it’s the steps taken to avoid feeling anxious that make life small. Being a friend or family member who is available, can sit in the discomfort of anxiety, share their calm and respond with empathy is priceless.

But be sure to look after yourself too. Living with or supporting someone with anxiety can be hard; you’ll be the very best support for the person you care about when you take excellent care of yourself too. A great way to bring more calm into your life is with Yoga Calm classes at Virgin Active or explore our wide variety of stress less options.

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