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How to support someone with anxiety

Supporting someone you care about often comes naturally, but how do you support someone living with heightened anxiety, especially if they are struggling to understand anxiety themselves.

Anxiety is an emotion like any other and part of everyone's life. Healthy doses of worry are normal, as the anxiety worrying creates alerts us to any danger present. However, if you notice that a friend, family member, or loved one is overly worried about things like daily tasks, their family’s safety, or situations that you may see as non-threatening, this healthy level of anxiety may have turned heightened.

While it maybe difficult to watch a friend or family member experience heightened anxiety, there are things you can do to help support them.

Understanding the Signs of Anxiety

Anxiety can manifest in many different ways but the signs are often the same. Here are some of the most common physical symptoms.

  • Chest pain, rapid or irregular heartbeat

  • Muscle tightness or restlessness

  • Irritable, feeling wound-up or on edge

  • Dry mouth, shortness of breath

  • Increased sweating

  • Stomach aches, butterflies or nausea

  • Headaches and or difficulty concentrating

  • Feeling out of control, feeling all or nothing

  • Feelings of panic, fear, or nervousness

  • Difficulty controlling feelings of worry, feeling of impending doom or that the worst may happen

  • Problems falling or staying asleep

Acknowledge the Anxiety

Supporting someone with heightened anxiety starts with understanding and recognising the signs and acknowledging them.

Some people experiencing heightened anxiety don’t recognise what is going on with themselves, so it can be helpful for you to name what you see, so you both can acknowledge it.

For example;

If your friend or loved one is displaying changing signs of behaviour like the ones listed above, it can be helpful to name it, such as "I notice the mood in the room has changed, can you feel it too?" rather than waiting for them to develop further into their anxiety and risk it becoming heightened.

Then when you ask them to do something different, they may ask you “what if something terrible happens” and then they are looking to you for reassurance. But if you reassure them, you are actually adding to their anxiety. Try pointing out that because you care about them, you notice they are reassurance-seeking, and it could actually make them more anxious in the long run. As when you rescue them, you are leaving them powerless to act. Then you can suggest methods of decreasing their anxiety together such as mindfulness practice, exercise, deep breathing, or talking to a counsellor. This will allow them to empower themselves to take action, remember anxiety alerts us we are in danger, if we ourselves are empowered to act then our nervous system calms itself quicker as it is no longer in 'danger'.

Explore and Promote

This can be an exploratory process to find out what works and what doesn't, as we are all individuals and no one method suits all. It can be helpful to learn what can trigger off heightened anxiety, then your friend or loved one can bring their awareness to and work with these triggers. Together, you can come up with a plan to aid and promote this process, such as meeting up, talking on the phone, or connecting online. Doing something they enjoy doing like going for a walk, engaging in sports, going to a particular restaurant, or watching a favourite film/series that you could do together can be really helpful, but most importantly, do encourage them to seek help if you feel like they are really struggling and could benefit from personal therapy.

Sharing resources can also be helpful, as your friend, family member or loved one can see you are considering their emotions, learning with you and you are educating yourself too. This can bring a closer relationship bond and trust by promoting good mental health together.

Ask for Help

Even though the symptoms of anxiety can feel overwhelming and permanent, anxiety is highly treatable and a temporary emotion. Once the person feels out of 'danger' they will soon feel better and move to another emotion. Anxiety like any other emotion and is temporary.

If someone you love is experiencing heightened anxiety and it feels like it has been a while, your role is to offer support and not treatment or resolve. Do remember to ask for help from your support network for yourself too, if needed.

Witham Therapy Room

Sharon Davitt MBACP Integrative Counsellor and Clinical Supervisor



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