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How to help someone struggling with anxiety

It can be difficult to discuss anxiety with someone, especially someone you love. Many people still see mental health as a taboo topic and may be uncomfortable sharing their personal struggles, but support of a loved one can be extremely helpful in coping with anxiety. By making sure your loved one feels heard and supported, you can make a big difference in their healing journey.

So, how can you start the conversation? What should you say? How can you really help? I’m going to share with you a few tips to help you know how to navigate these sensitive conversations.

Recognize the signs of anxiety

The first step in approaching someone about anxiety is knowing what it is and how it typically manifests in someone’s life. Knowing how to recognize anxiety is key to knowing how you can help. 

There are several types of anxiety, and each looks a little bit different. Some of the top types of anxieties are generalized anxiety, panic attacks and social anxiety disorder. Let’s talk about each one in more detail.

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

Generalized Anxiety Disorder presents as an excessive concern or worry that can affect someone’s day-to-day life. People may start to neglect work, hygiene or being around friends. To be diagnosed, these symptoms must occur more days out of the week than not and be present for over six months. 

It is essential to differentiate isolated episodes of anxiety from this generalized disorder. Someone struggling with GAD may experience more anger, fatigue and difficulty sleeping. Keep in mind, these symptoms must be noted outside of association with alcohol and drugs. 

If you or someone you love is experiencing symptoms of GAD, there is an easily accessible home questionnaire to assess for GAD. It is called the GAD-7 Screening Tool. This can help determine the severity of symptoms so you can figure out next steps. 

Panic attacks (panic disorder)

Panic attacks, the marker of panic disorder, are different from GAD in that they can occur rapidly. People experiencing a panic attack usually have both physical and psychological symptoms that peak within minutes of onset. Some of these physical symptoms consist of chest pain, nausea, racing heart and shortness of breath. Along with these symptoms, people typically feel an increased sense of dread or worry.

Social anxiety disorder (social phobia)

Social anxiety disorder is very common, especially during stressful times like the COVID-19 pandemic.  This may be a fear of a social setting or place where you are required to perform.

A common fear among people with social anxiety disorder is that they will face harsh criticism or be ridiculed by others. These anxiety-inducing social settings can be telephone calls, new introductions, in-person presentations and similar situations.

Related: How to help a child cope with anxiety

How you can help someone with anxiety

Approach them privately

Once you have recognized the signs of anxiety, it is important to address this with the person you are concerned about. You want to make sure that you approach them privately. This can help avoid feelings of embarrassment or shame that they may have when confronted. By approaching privately in a safe setting, you can make sure they feel supported and encouraged, not judged or accused.

Make sure they’re ready

It can be hard to determine the best time to discuss such a sensitive topic. Once you have determined the appropriate time to discuss this with the person, then determine their readiness.

Feel free to start the conversation by sharing your personal experience with anxiety to help normalize their symptoms and to reduce the stigma that this is all in their head. Know when they appear to be overwhelmed and respect their decision if they do not want to talk about how they feel.

Your friend or family member must be ready to discuss their anxiety. If they don’t seem ready, consider backing off and waiting for a time when the conversation will be helpful. You can attempt to reapproach them at a later date. If they begin to talk, then let them share without interruptions.

What not to say

  • Do not reduce their emotions. For example, do not say, “Oh, you’ve always been this way. This is just your personality.” It is important to understand that this is their perspective and their emotions. These types of comments may cause them to retreat and make them less likely to share about their anxiety in the future.
  • Avoid enabling or worsening their symptoms.
  • Do not encourage replacing unhealthy habits with alcohol or drug use.
  • Don’t tell them this is something they just need to “deal with” on their own.

What to say

  • Validate their concerns, fears or worries. By validating your loved one’s concerns, you can be even more helpful in encouraging them to seek treatment.
  • You can suggest natural ways for improving anxiety, like exercise. Movement can be a form of natural treatment for many mental health disorders. Other helpful practices include journaling, yoga and meditation.
  • Offer to go for a walk together. You can walk and talk at the same time, helping them relax physically and mentally.
  • Gently recommend meeting with a physician or mental health professional.

Help them find support

Helping a friend, family member or colleague who is struggling with anxiety can be difficult. Knowing how to recognize anxiety is a great way to first approach the concern, but it’s important to recognize that you are not a mental health expert. Sometimes, people need expert level care to properly treat anxiety and its underlying causes.

What you can do is help them find the resources they need to begin to move forward. Sometimes, it is difficult to find reputable resources, especially in this digital information age. You can find immediate help through the resources and lifelines listed here from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

Be there for them, no matter what

The overall goal is to make sure your loved one is being heard and is ready to be heard. Once this occurs, you want to avoid becoming part of the problem. How? Be a good support system.

Remember to recommend follow-up with a mental health professional, and offer to be at their appointment as a support person. It is difficult to get early appointments for mental health—remind them to not be discouraged by this. Keep in mind that a primary care provider such as a family medicine physician like me, a primary care physician, pediatrician or internist can also assist with an initial discussion of anxiety. There are also telemedicine options as well.

Remind them that they are not alone in their anxiety, and they don’t have to handle it by themselves.

Looking for help for a loved one experiencing anxiety? Find a doctor near you.

About the author

Fredricka Barr, MD
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Fredricka Barr, MD, is a family medicine physician on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Clinic – Austin North Burnet. Book an appointment with Dr. Barr today.

How to help someone struggling with anxiety