Trying to help someone who suffers from anxiety can be a challenge. It's not clear what we can do to properly support them and our words often miss the mark completely. It can even feel alarming because no matter how hard we try to help, nothing we do helps.
If you feel overwhelmed, please be assured you are not alone.
Anyone who suffers from severe anxiety, particularly anxiety attacks, also feels overwhelmed and at the mercy of their anxious thoughts.
Whether the anxiety is about their health, social situations, being rejected or having some fear about what might happen to them (like flying) they themselves may not understand why they’re anxious and where the feelings come from.
So when we try to understand them, we’re starting from almost impossible place. We want to help but we don’t know where to start.
Don’t be discouraged because here I give you some guidance on how to help someone who is suffering from severe anxiety.
LEARN ABOUT ANXIETY AND WHERE IT COMES FROM
Approximately 33% of the world’s population suffer from anxiety. This can be anything from generalized anxiety disorder, to panic disorder which transforms into such a state that the sufferer go into a full frenzy and thinks they’re going to die.
Here’s an article I wrote to further explain where anxiety comes from called WHY AM I ANXIOUS?
Understanding the type of anxiety your sufferer has might help you to get specific resources for that particular anxiety because Each type of anxiety brings a unique set of problems.
For example, someone who suffers from health anxiety may not be listening to you because they are so wrapped up in their symptoms and only focused on how their body feels. Someone with social anxiety might refuse to go out the door because they are scared of being judged and this creates a different set of problems.
So understanding what type of anxiety they have will give you more awareness of how you can help them. It can seem very confusing to begin with but anxiety generally comes down to four types:
Social anxiety disorder when the person feels over-whelming anxiety about social situations and being judged or embarrassed.
Panic disorder when they feel a terror that strikes at random. During a panic attack they may have chest pains, heart palpitations, sweat profusely and have trouble breathing.
The sufferer may have specific phobias where they feel an intense and overwhelming fear of a specific situation or object that goes beyond what’s deemed appropriate. This can stop doing things that other people find normal like flying, going into a crowd or climbing anything with height.
They may suffer from generalized anxiety disorder where they feel excessive and on realistic worry and tension with very little or no reason for it.
It’s also good to understand how anxiety can you turn into a disorder because of a pre-disposition. This article by a medical team helps to explain the links between the triggers and anxious and emotions, behavior and thoughts. Click Here
HOW MUCH HELP CAN YOU OFFER TO ANXIETY SUFFERERS?
Once you understand the nature of anxiety and anxiety disorders, it’s worth considering exactly how much help you can offer.
Some people just listen to the anxious person whilst they are sharing their thoughts and feelings.
On the other hand, some people like to get in deep and help the other person work through a list of tasks whilst questioning if they are putting things off due to anxiety.
You may want to establish whether or not you want the anxiety sufferer to be answerable to you, which would make them accountable to you.
You could do this by working up a list of things that trigger anxiety all the way through to situations that create an anxiety attack.
In this case both you and the sufferer would have a list of things the sufferer avoids due to feeling overwhelmed. Then you might meet for a daily/ weekly hour where you go over what they have achieved and what they need more help on.
You could accompany the sufferer to classes like yoga, breathing or meditation classes. You might go with them to the gym (because exercise burns off stress hormones and increases the feel-good hormones.)
You might become a spotter where you look out for their anxiety thoughts and help them rebalance them so they are able to see a more logical perspective.
You might become more aware of their behavior and be able to identify when they are going through a period of high anxiety. They may have stopped calling you back or returning a message. You might pick up on the nuance and become more in tune with their anxiety pattern.
HELPING THEM MANAGE OR BREAK FREE FROM THEIR AVOIDANCE BEHAVIOR
Avoidance is a huge part of the anxiety problem because someone who suffers severe anxiety avoids something they need to do, or go to, at any cost because it normally makes them feel panicky.
This might include making that phone call, having a meeting with the boss, starting on a task that feels intimidating, taking responsibility for mistakes or asking for something they don’t believe they deserve.
Avoiding doing things they need to do because of anxiety creates a snowball effect where the anxiety takes over and overwhelms the sufferer. Avoiding doing these things makes it more likely they have extreme and negative thoughts about it.
One of the tools to help someone with their avoidance is for them to verbalize their anxiety and the reasons they want to avoid doing what they have to do.
It might be helpful for them to talk through the steps they need to take in order to break through the old avoidance patterns.
The end goal is that the sufferer comes to realize that only they can help themselves. The best way to facilitate this progress is to listen to what they are saying and reflect it back.
If, for example, the sufferer is anxious about going to a meeting, the best way to help them is:
Let them talk through their anxiety, how it feels and what they are trying to avoid
Reflects back verbatim what they have said so they can hear their own words through someone else’s voice
This has a powerful effect because it takes the anxious thoughts out of their head and allows them to hear it through someone else’s voice and allow them to get a slightly different perspective on their own issues.
It sounds like it is too simplistic but it really works. The challenge for the helper is to concentrate on repeating exactly what the sufferer has said. It’s easy to put your own interpretation into it. The task is to repeat what they have said word for word.
TAKE THE STING OUT OF THE ANXIETY
Normally, people who suffer from severe anxiety are embarrassed about their symptoms. They become fearful about their symptoms showing them up in a social situation or at work and this makes their anxiety worse.
Anxiety can make people sweat or their voice shake and if this shows up at, for example in the workplace, it can intensify avoidance behavior.
It’s often the fear of symptoms appearing in front of others and the fear of having and anxiety attack that is more debilitating than the symptoms or the attack itself.
This fear adds to the idea that they think they might be going mad, losing their mind or crazy. The need to manage the fear is what aggravates the disorder.
Dealing with the anxiety and then dealing with the perceived stigma about the anxiety makes this a double whammy. This is when we have to help take the sting and the stigma out of the anxiety. This is possibly the best way how to help anxiety sufferers.
What’s vital is that you make it clear that you don’t see their anxiety disorder as a sign of incompetence or weakness. Fear of being judged makes everything 100 times worse.
It will help the anxiety sufferer if you share with them how you get anxious in certain situations because everyone does at some time in life.
A fear of being judged, being refused something or rejected is something that we all experience. Letting someone who suffers from an anxiety disorder see how you also get anxious in certain situations will help them de-stigmatized the anxiety and recognize we are all the same.
THE BEST WAY HOW TO HELP ANXIETY SUFFERERS? HELP THEM GET HELP
You are not a medic and your support will only go so far. It’s important to help the anxiety sufferer get the professional help they need.
A visit to the doctor will start them on a process, which is set out for anxiety sufferers.
I know from experience it is hard to decide whether to go the medical route or the self-help route. The best thing you can do is expose the anxiety sufferer to all options and let them make up their own mind.
Unless they are ready to be sectioned, they are deemed capable of making personal decisions. We have to respect that regardless of our own preferences.
You could offer to go to appointments with them, look after the kids or just drop them off.
You could also show them this article and indicate that you have been looking at lots of information to get clued up about anxiety.
Once they have decided on the help they need and begun treatment, it’s very important that they discuss any hesitancy they have about the treatment with the professional.
It would be very easy for them to have negative thoughts about the treatment and discuss them with you only. However ensuring they take the issues back to the doctor or therapist is vital for long-term recovery and you can encourage them to do that when they talk to you about it.
They will need tons of encouragement to keep going because talking about their anxiety with strangers is extremely uncomfortable.
SAYING THE RIGHT THING
When someone is sharing their anxieties it is very easy to fall into reassuring them. It’s like a trap.
Your sufferer is anxious about a social situation, they share the anxieties with you and you tell them that it will all be alright on the night.
Let’s assume it wasn’t alright on the night and they had measurable anxiety symptoms and perhaps even a panic attack. They will come back to you and question you on why you said it was going to be alright when it obviously wasn’t.
You are in a no win position.
Instead, what needs to be in place is a plan. This plan would be best to put in place by a professional. The aim of the plan is to disrupt the sufferer’s need for constant reassurance and teach them to reassure themselves.
If you are close to the anxiety sufferer, you may want to attend a session where the therapist and the sufferer explain to you what the plan is. This team building will fully support the sufferer.
If you have no game plan in place, the way to respond to the anxiety sufferer who needs reassurance is to say something like; I know you have the capacity/tools to take care of this situation.
This reaffirms their own capability.
It can be very easy to get involved in someone else’s problems to the detriment of your own.
Looking after someone else can be a useful distraction from our own struggles. It is important to recognize this and question if you are doing the right thing for you by taking on this much caring.
One thing to remember is you, or any other adult, are not responsible for another person unless a legal document has been drawn up to verify this. If it becomes too much you can walk away without any guilt. Remember to take care of your own needs too.
Here's my new "2 Weeks To Beat Anxiety Course" that you can sign up to, to help others, or sign someone up to who suffers from anxiety: