How can you help and support someone in your life who is dealing with anxiety is a question that came up recently from a lovely listener.
It’s something that comes up a lot actually, particularly over the last couple of years.
Firstly it’s worth saying, there is no one size fits all approach to this. As with anything. We can’t generalise out one individual’s needs so a lot of this will be about patience and seeing what helps the individual in your life.
However, there are some battle tried and tested things that can absolutely help you down that path to discovering what that looks like for them and you.
For context, because I think it’s important, I struggled with anxiety for most of my life. I was a total catastophiser. I was paranoid. I was always living in the past or the future, never present. I over-thought everything, worried about everything and struggled to relax.
It’s not easy. Many people feel like they need to hide it too which can make it worse. You can very easily feel like your emotions and feelings are inconvenient to other people.
But the fact you’re listening to this and it was requested suggests to me that you’re genuinely looking to support people which is amazing.
So this episode is coming from a combination of my studies and qualifications but also very much from my lived experience.
So there are many things you can do to help support someone in your life who is dealing with anxiety.
Firstly, and potentially most importantly, validate their experience. Validation looks like ‘I’m sorry you’re dealing with this it sounds tough’ or ‘It makes sense why you might feel this way’ or ‘thank you for sharing this with me.’ Reflect back what they’re saying to you and help them feel heard and understood.
Don’t tell them to ‘calm down’. Don’t tell them to ‘pull themselves together’ or to ‘get over it’ or ‘just think positive’ or telling them that other people have it worse. These are hugely invalidating and ignoring the fact that anxiety is a biological and physiological response to perceived threat. It’s the body’s alarm system.
Speaking of which, another thing you can do is really understand anxiety yourself. Understand what is going on for that person. The more you’re educated on the response itself the more you’re able to help purely from that state. It means you won’t panic and think ‘I don’t understand why this is happening’ or get anxious yourself about doing the ‘right’ thing.
This is a huge part of what I teach in my SOS! Success over stress programme. The combination of the psychoeducation piece of the puzzle and having the tools to make change is so so important in both helping ourselves and other people. And understanding ourselves and other people and our behaviour.
Share what you read or heard with them that helped YOU or YOU found interesting. There’s a BIG difference between sharing something from a place of YOU need this because YOU have a problem and ‘I wanted to share this because it made so much sense, I found it super helpful.’ This could be a book, a movie, an article, a video, a podcast. Share from a space of ‘i’m doing this and it’s so good i’m sharing it’. It gives them choice and agency back. None of this can be forced.
Don’t put pressure on them to change or act as if having anxiety is ‘wrong’ or ‘inconvenient’. This is a big one. When it comes to anxiety we’re working with the nervous system. We’re talking about rewiring neural pathways. That takes time. Celebrate the little wins. Help reflect even the smallest of changes back in a positive way.
Encourage communication. So many of us were taught as children to suppress our emotions. Many of us were taught to not talk about feelings because it’s weak, or we ‘shouldn’t feel a certain way and we should just be happy all the time.
The reality is that if you do that they will get louder and come out in other ways, like anxiety for example. The more communication is encouraged the more things can be worked through in real time, but the caveat is doing what you can do to make that communication feel ‘safe’ for the other person.
Don’t try to force it.
Let them know you’re there if and when they want to talk, and model open communication yourself. Lead by example. Let them know you’re there to support them.
Listen. I can’t express how important this one is. Actually listen and be present with them.
Ask for consent before giving advice. That looks like simply asking them, ‘Would you like me to offer advice here or just listen?’
Help them decode their own anxiety and bring conscious awareness to it. Where do they feel it in their body? What helps them feel better? When we do this from a space of compassion, wanting to understand from a place of curiosity instead of judgement it opens the door to more awareness which is the first major key to change.
Ask for what they need most right now at this moment. Many of us, again as children, were taught to abandon our own needs. So this can take some time. But simply asking what they need at that moment can be huge. It might be space, it might be a hug, it might be to just be listened to or zone out for a minute. Letting them know it’s ok (obviously as long as it’s not something that’s going to harm them in any way) and that you’ll be there when they’re ready.
Don’t try to suppress their emotions. Let them know it’s ok for them to be there and that you’re there with them.
Another HUGE tip is to learn to manage your own emotions. Again this is covered in SOS! Success Over Stress so if you do want the details drop me a message on Instagram @imfranexcell. Managing your own emotions and being able to model a calm nervous system when someone is struggling with anxiety is a game changer. They literally get to borrow your nervous system through co regulation.
Equip yourself with a few tools that can help. This could be certain breathing patterns, exercises for vagal toning, somatic tools using movement. There are SO many tools, many of which are inside my Positive Pants Toolkit app and membership. It’s finding the ones that feel good to you that you can share without pressure. That might be breathing, it might be encouraging them to come to a yoga or exercise class with you or it could be suggesting going for a walk. You might become gratitude buddies where instead of writing in a journal you send them 3 things you’re grateful for and they send it back. It’s often the most simple tools that can have the biggest effect. The trick is understanding how and why they work because it gives you so much more motivation to try them and stick to them.
Finally for today, encourage them to talk to someone qualified and help them understand there’s absolutely no shame in that.
This is by no means exhaustive but they’re some of the things that hugely helped me and I see help my clients all the time.
I really hope this has been helpful to someone.
Fran Excell, Success Mindset Mentor at www.franexcell.com – Helping Business Owners & Executives Overcome Stress & Self Sabotage so they can get back their time, get off the emotional rollercoaster and feel more in control.
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