How to Help Someone With Anxiety

Ally Rosenmerkel

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     According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 25.1% kids between ages of 13 and 18 suffer from an anxiety disorder, and these numbers are only proliferating. Chances are if you don’t suffer from some form of anxiety, you have someone close to you who does. It’s therefore extremely important to know how to help mitigate the symptoms of anxiety sufferers; both for the benefit of the person with the disorder and for the loved one caring for them.

     One of the most influential ways to support someone with anxiety is to simply educate yourself about their illness. The more you know about their particular symptoms, the better. You’ll tend to be more understanding and get frustrated less easily when you are able to identify which of their thoughts or actions are the result of their anxiety, as you’ll feel less of an inclination to blame them or take it personally. Additionally, not knowing what to do when your friend or family member is having a panic attack, for example, is very stressful on both ends, and feeling helpless when this occurs can be very distressing. Knowing how to navigate situations in which someone’s anxiety gets out of control can be abundantly beneficial.

     Anxiety sufferers can often find it very difficult to complete seemingly menial tasks, such as answering questions in class, going to the grocery store, driving a car, or talking to classmates. Furthermore, due to the ease with which most people can do these things, they tend to feel ashamed or pathetic for their inability to achieve these things. Therefore, simply telling someone with anxiety that you are proud of them for their small accomplishments can make all the difference. Overcoming their anxieties is a very big deal and is indicative of recovery and power over their disorder. Don’t let them diminish their success, either, though they may find them insignificant or trivial. Ask them if they would ever tell someone who is deaf that them learning to talk or sing is unimpressive because everyone else can do it. They have certain restrictions that hinder them from completing tasks other people can, and so accomplishing these things is a big deal. Remind them not to compare their growth to others, and that their improvement is worth celebrating.

     Help them destigmatize their experience of anxiety. People with anxiety can often feel embarrassed by their symptoms, or perceive them as things that make them weak, pathetic, or even crazy. Assuring them that you don’t see their anxiety as a character flaw and don’t attribute it to the adjectives they may describe themselves with can help make them feel more comfortable with and accepting of their illness. The worry of other people judging them is a common symptom along with all of the other struggles they must endure, and so helping them assuage this particular fear can ease their burden a little bit.

     While encouraging loved ones to break free of their avoidance behavior is important, you should be careful not to push them too far. People suffering from anxiety will oftentimes avoid things they should do as a result of the stress it would cause. This kind of behavior has been found to be extremely unhealthy, not only hinders progress but also fosters even more feelings of anxiety surrounding a certain situation. As denoted by the Social Anxiety Institute, “The more avoidant a young person becomes, the more they fear the things they have not done.   So, they may choose avoidance rather than progress because it is the easiest thing to do — it is the path of least resistance.” However, forcing someone into something they have a lot of anxiety over can do a lot more harm than good, potentially developing even more fear and bad feelings around that particular task. Instead, encourage them to take little steps in overcoming their anxieties. For example, if they’re afraid of talking to retail workers, offer to first come with them while interacting with one, then, as they grow more comfortable, encourage them to complete the task by themselves.

     One method to aid anxiety sufferers that many deem helpful is aiding them in catching their own thinking errors. Irrational and negative thinking is the cornerstone of an anxiety disorder, and while many people are able to recognize on some level that their thoughts are unreasonable, they still find it difficult to free themselves from them. Therefore, it can be very helpful to have an outside perspective aiding them in overcoming their irrational thoughts and fears. Aid them in challenging their thoughts: ask them what evidence they have that supports a particular thought they’re having, and then what evidence opposes it, and use this is help them draw more realistic conclusions. Repeating damaging ideas, either out loud or in their head can also negatively impact their emotional state. Tweaking the specific words they use to describe a feeling and adding specific conditions can also help them develop more reasonable thoughts and avoid overgeneralizing. For example, instead of letting them say  “My friend hates me”, encourage them to say “My friend may be upset with me right now, but we have a strong relationship and she will probably forgive me”. Most importantly, be gentle with them; never tell them that their thought is ridiculous or that they shouldn’t even be having it- many of them know that they might be being illogical, but just have a lot of difficulting in letting their thoughts go. Be understanding of the fact that many of these thoughts are out of their control, and instead aid them in adjusting the thoughts.

     Ask them if there is anything in particular they know will help. Each person experiences anxiety differently, and everyone will have different preferences regarding the support they receive. One may like to be really pushed into doing the things they fear, another might just want someone to talk to, and another might just need a friend to sit with them in the silence when things seem out of control. Listen and be receptive to their needs.

     Most importantly, always just let your friends, family, or other loved ones with anxiety know that you’re there for them. Communicate that you’re open to discussing their anxiety with them, and let them know they can come to you for support. Try to understand that their anxiety may manifest itself in ways that may hurt you (such as being quick to irritation or having a tendency to isolate themselves from people they care about) and try to be as forgiving as possible. Be patient with them in their recovery. Above all, remind them that you care about them and will be there for them through it all. That alone can mean the world.

For more information on anxiety in general, see Courtney Hassell’s article, “Dear Brimstone: is anxiety normal in teens?” ( https://gshsbrimstone.com/1011/dearbrimstone/dear-brimstone-2/ )

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