Posted on December 15, 2020
If you know someone struggling with anxiety, there are ways you can support them. Read on to learn how you can help someone through their anxiety.
Anxiety is actually a very normal part of being human, and we all experience it on some level occasionally. It’s really just a warning system designed by human evolution to alert us when there might be trouble, and allows us to prepare. Sometimes though, our alarm system isn’t working as well as it should, switching on too often when there’s just no need. Anxiety often prompts different coping mechanics through therapy for anxiety often using a therapy matching program.
Anxiety can be thought of as the workings of a strong healthy brain that’s being a little too wary. It’s not crazy, troubled, or even abnormal. It’s simply overprotective. Like anything that works over time, anxiety can be intrusive, confusing and exhausting.
Anxiety is so common that if you aren’t experiencing it yourself, it’s very likely that someone you care about is. For some people, there may be no outward clues that they are anxious at all and, for others, anxiety can be debilitating.
If someone close to you is experiencing anxiety that exceeds the norm, there may be signs, some obvious and others not so much. When anxiety is misunderstood or ignored it can do the most damage, which is why it’s important to not turn the other way when a friend or family member is struggling with anxiety. If you notice it, don’t make a big deal. They have likely been living with it for a while. Just be there and know that you don’t need to fix anything to be huge support. None of these behaviors necessarily mean anxiety is causing trouble for someone you care about, but they might. Being open to the signs and the different ways anxiety looks when it lands will help you to be a strong, steady, soothing presence for your loved one.
As mentioned, anxiety is our body’s way of sensing and preparing for a potential dangerous situation. For example, speaking in front of a group can make us anxious, but that same anxiety also motivates us to prepare and practice. Driving in heavy traffic is another common source of anxiety, especially when running late, but it helps keep us alert and cautious to avoid accidents. However, when feelings of intense fear and distress become overwhelming and prevent us from doing everyday activities, an anxiety disorder may be the cause.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health concern in the United States. Over 40 million adults in the U.S. (19.1%) have an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders are a group of related conditions, each having unique symptoms. However, all anxiety disorders have one thing in common: persistent, excessive fear or worry in situations that are only perceived threats, not real danger. People who suffer from an anxiety disorder typically experience one or more of the following symptoms:
Feelings of apprehension or dread
Feeling tense or jumpy
Restlessness or irritability
Anticipating the worst and actively seeking signs of danger
Pounding or racing heart and shortness of breath
Sweating, tremors and twitches
Headaches, fatigue and insomnia
Upset stomach, frequent urination or diarrhea
There are many types of anxiety disorders, each with their own subset of unique symptoms. The most common types of anxiety disorders include:
GAD produces chronic, exaggerated worrying about everyday life that can potentially consume hours each day, preventing a person from finishing daily tasks. A person with GAD may become exhausted by worry and experience headaches, tension or nausea.
This goes beyond feeling shy; this disorder causes intense fear about social interaction, often driven by irrational worries about humiliation. Someone with social anxiety disorder may not take part in conversations, contribute to class or work discussions or offer their ideas, and may become isolated. Panic attacks are a common reaction to anticipated or forced social interaction. It is important to realize the difference between a panic attack vs anxiety attack.
This disorder is characterized by panic attacks and sudden feelings of terror sometimes striking repeatedly and without warning. Often mistaken for a heart attack, a panic attack causes powerful physical symptoms including chest pain, heart palpitations, dizziness, shortness of breath and stomach upset. Many people will go to desperate measures to avoid an attack, including social isolation.
We all tend to avoid certain things or situations that make us uncomfortable or even fearful. But for someone with a phobia, certain places, events or objects can create powerful reactions of strong, irrational fear. Most people with specific phobias have several things that can trigger those reactions; to avoid panic, they will work hard to avoid their triggers. Depending on the type and number of triggers, attempts to control fear can take over a person’s life.
Knowing whether or not someone is experiencing anxiety can be difficult, especially if they’ve been dealing with it for a while; they’ll likely have figured out ways to keep it concealed. If you’re not aware of common symptoms, they could be easy to miss, even when someone is quietly suffering. Symptoms vary from person to person but can be broken into three categories:
Feeling edgy and/or restless
Shortness of breath
Getting easily fatigued
Obsessing over worst case scenarios
Overgeneralizing (making overall assumptions based on a single event)
Avoidance of feared situations or events
Irritability and frustration in feared situations
Compulsive actions (like washing hands over and over)
Do you have an anxious friend or worried about a loved one's anxiety symptoms? If you suspect someone is having a panic attack, Mental Health First Aid teaches you to follow the ALGEE action steps. Even if this person isn’t experiencing anything as severe or immediate as a panic attack, it’s still a good guide to follow for how to help someone with anxiety. Remember, even if their symptoms do not appear in a big way, it doesn’t mean they don’t feel larger than life.
To start, you’ll want to identify if this person is in crisis, which could look like an extreme level of anxiety, a panic attack, nonsuicidal self-injury or suicidal thoughts, address that particular crisis first.
If the person isn’t in a crisis, gently explain that you’ve noticed some concerning behavior and ask how they’re feeling. Be patient and engaged while they speak, which will likely be difficult for them to open up. Ask clarifying questions and use minimal prompts – like “I see” – to keep them talking. Pay attention and use your body language to express openness and presence.
Your support can have a huge impact on the person. Sometimes it will be difficult – the person might want to give up trying to find help or might get frustrated during the process – but if you’re kind, genuine and persistent, you can help sway them. However, always make sure they’re involved in the decision-making, because treating the person with respect and giving them autonomy is equally important. Maintain positive language – don’t blame them for their illness or symptoms. Remind them that recovery is possible and that you’ll be there for them along the way.
Decide if the situation feels like professional assistance is needed and offer to help the person understand their options. Primary care physicians, mental health professionals, psychiatrists and certified peer specialists are all possibilities for getting support with anxiety disorders. Encourage the person to explore these options, offer to help them research to choose the best option, and keep them motivated throughout the process.
Help the person identify and create a trusted support network. Additionally, you can suggest and encourage self-help strategies like relaxation training, a deep breathing exercise to help with stressful situations, meditation, self-help books based on cognitive behavioral therapy, and physical exercise.
As you’ve probably noticed, the physical symptoms of an anxiety disorder can be easily confused with other medical conditions, like heart disease or hyperthyroidism. Therefore, a doctor is a great place to start for help. He or she will likely perform an evaluation involving a physical examination, an interview and lab tests. After ruling out an underlying physical illness, a doctor may refer a person to a mental health professional for further evaluation.
Different anxiety disorders have their own distinct sets of symptoms. This means that each type of anxiety disorder also has its own treatment plan. Many therapists can help somewith with anxiety, but some specifically help with different anxiety disorders and their unique needs like cognitive behavioral therapy.
Anxiety therapy is one of the most effective tools in the management of anxiety. If your loved one needs help finding an anxiety therapist, referring them to Advekit is a great, discreet platform to help them get matched with a great mental health professional.
It’s always difficult to see a loved one struggle. If you know someone who is suffering with an anxiety disorder, don’t wait to help. Approach them with compassion and information to help guide them towards a better mental health.
Alison LaSov, LMFT
Alison LaSov is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with experience treating clients struggling with anxiety and depression. She predominantly focuses on mental health intervention for children and adolescents, particularly those who are in crisis. She has worked within the Los Angeles education system treating students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), as well as supervised a non-profit Teen Crisis Hotline out of Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Alison earned her B.A. from UCLA and M.A. from Pepperdine University. She is a native to Los Angeles and co-founder at Advekit.