by Andrea Blundell
Your friend is so worked up over something, you worry they are about to have a panic attack. How can you help a friend with anxiety?
How to recognise anxiety
Stress is a logical response to overwhelm. Your friend or loved one will have a reason for their stress. Their boss has asked them to do someone else’s work as well as their own. Their partner just randomly left.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is not about logic. It’s an addictive thought loop driven by illogic thinking that leaves someone in a cloud of fear. It often strikes out of nowhere, or is triggered by something small. If your friend seems far too agitated for the situation, or keeps repeating very exaggerated ideas, and seems afraid? It’s anxiety.
[Read more in our article, stress vs anxiety].
How to help a friend with anxiety
A stressed person responds well to finding solutions. To being to calm down and get practical.
But telling an anxious person to calm down and think things through simply leave them feeling anxious about feeling anxious.
Helping anxiety is not about finding an ‘answer’ but about helping your friend or loved one’s mind to let go of its thought loop. Try the following tips.
1. Stay calm.
Don’t tell them to ‘calm down’, use your own energy to set an example by staying grounded yourself. This can be a challenge if you are watching your friend go through the physical signs of anxiety, which can include feeling they are having a heart attack, as well as:
- trouble breathing
- heart palpitations and a heavy chest
- sweating and trembling
- headaches and dizziness
- muscle tension.
But remember that anxiety eventually passes. It’s like a wave, or a set of stormy clouds. In fact some anxiety sufferers find it helpful to think of anxiety this way. To remind themselves that the waves eventually get smaller, the sky finally clears. You just have to ride it out.
2. Encourage them to breathe and relax.
Most people in a state of anxiety are holding their breath. How to help someone through an anxiety attack? Get them to notice this and start taking long, slow breaths into the diaphragm.
This counteracts the parasympathetic nervous system which is causing all the symptoms above. And it also means they will be more able to be present and listen to you.
A study at the University of Beijing highlighted the ability of sustained diaphragmatic breathing to not only reduce mental and physiological stress, but to improve our ability to think clearly.
Also suggest they relax their shoulders and arms, this often releases a lot of pent up tension.
3. Don’t expect them to make sense.
Again, anxiety is driven on illogic, fear-based thoughts. The more anxious someone becomes, the more illogic they will seem.
Don’t ask them to ‘speak logically’ or ‘explain again in a way I can understand’. Their mind is in an illogic loop, and if they could just get out of it, they wouldn’t have anxiety.
4. Don’t put them down for not making sense.
How to comfort someone with anxiety? Not by mocking or belittling them. This not only makes them feel more anxious, it makes them ashamed. Shame makes people shut down. They don’t accept help.
5. But don’t patronise either.
At the same time, don’t patronise. This looks like:
- poor you
- you’ll feel fine soon, go have a cup of tea
- you just need to relax
- oh, I was anxious once, you’ll be fine.
6. Don’t ask them all about their anxiety.
“You are anxious, you are so anxious, are you having an anxiety attack? Are you feeling all the symptoms of anxiety? How often are you anxious?”
Again, anxious people can get anxiety about anxiety. So don’t feed the beast.
If you know they get anxiety and it’s obvious they are anxious, then just stay practical.
If you aren’t sure, ask once, get the confirm, they focus on helping.
7. Instead, listen. Properly.
Ask them what is upsetting them, and then listen. Let them get their illogic thoughts out into the open. Sometimes hearing how illogic things sound out loud can itself start the process of calming down.
Listening means putting your attention fully on the other person. If it helps, repeat what they are saying in your mind to keep focus.
8. If they don’t stop talking, then actually interrupt.
Usually interrupting is a sign of terrible listening. But remember, anxiety is addictive and a loop.
Do let your friend or loved one get their whole thought process out, but if they start to repeat themselves? Or are babbling? It’s important to gently interrupt with something like, ‘let me know when you are finished, ok?’. Or touch their arm and ask permission to speak. ‘Is it okay if I speak?”
9. Then don’t accept what they say. Seriously.
Again, belittling their anxious thoughts is the worst thing you can do. So make sure they feel heard.
But don’t agree with their illogical thoughts. This is fodder for the fire of anxiety. And it’s not what an anxious person actually wants. They want someone to bring them back down to earth and away from their state of fear. To throw them a life buoy.
They need to get out of the thought cycle, to be shown that their thoughts are just assumptions. And then be distracted by positive action.
So use a model like:
“I hear what you are saying about —-. But is it possible that you are making an assumption? Because on the other hand —. ( Add action step).”
“I hear what you are saying about someone possibly breaking into your flat when you are sleeping. But is it possible that is an assumption? Because on the other hand, I don’t know a single person who has ever been broken into and I live in a big city and know a ton of people. And what if we look at the cost of an alarm system together?”
They might reject what you say. Just keep up with your tactic. Keep offering other perspectives and action steps. Talk them down from the ledge then show them a path back inland.
Help them with positive distractions.
Again, an action step, provided it leads away from fear and is a real solution, is helpful.
But if a person is in a serious state of anxiety and can’t calm down enough to take in your logic, or is anxious about something way beyond logic (they are convinced their ex thinks they smell bad and is telling everyone, for example) then simply work on a positive distraction that takes them out of their mind and thoughts.
Great ideas here are:
- anything physical – a walk, a fitness class, dancing around the living room
- things that require mindfulness like baking, knitting, cleaning the house, singing, making music
- getting into nature – even just the garden
- comedy and laughter – a funny movie, for example.
Give then a hug.
Remember that sympathetic nervous system creating all those physical side effects? A hug triggers its opposite, the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows the heart rate and relaxes muscles.
But only if they want a hug, so ask first. An unwanted hug just, well, you guessed it… raises anxiety.
Do you yourself have anxiety, and wish you could talk to someone who understood your anxiety this well? We connect you with top London talk therapists in four locations or over the internet. Of find a UK-wide registered therapist or Skype therapist on our booking platform.
Still have a question about how to help a friend with anxiety? Or want to share your own tip with other readers? Use the comment box below.
Andrea Blundell is the lead writer and commissioning editor of this site and has suffered severe anxiety since a child. She wishes her friends and family had of known all this and hopes this can help others.