Experiencing anxiety can feel isolating and difficult. If you love someone who is struggling with anxiety, it can be hard to know what to do that will help them. You might be afraid to say or do the wrong thing. Or you may not fully understand what their anxiety feels like, making it hard for you to know how to help.When someone you love is struggling with anxiety, it is helpful to understand what anxiety is. Anxiety is more than a one-time, passing feeling of worry or fear. According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety is:
Anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure. People with anxiety disorders usually have recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns. They may avoid certain situations out of worry. They may also have physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, dizziness, or a rapid heartbeat. – APA
This basic understanding can help you support the person about whom you care. While we all experience the feeling of anxiety sometimes, chronic anxiety is not something a person can simply snap out of or turn off. It often interferes with daily life, making activities like work, school, relationships, leaving the house, shopping, or decision-making difficult.
Just because it is complex, doesn’t mean you can’t do anything for the person you care about. You can help someone who is struggling with anxiety. If you approach the situation intending to support rather than fix things, you can make a big difference for your loved one.
How to help someone struggling with anxiety.
Here are some things you can do to help them:
Offer a long hug.
It is important to note that physical touch is not welcome for every person or in every relationship. It is always a good idea to ask someone for permission to engage in physical touch, even if it is just a hug.
Say something such as, “Can I give you a hug?” or “Would you be comfortable with a hug?” to ensure the person is okay with this type of interaction. If they are, giving a long hug can help ease anxious feelings. A long hug lasting 10 seconds or more can reduce blood pressure and lower heart rates, decrease cortisol (stress hormone) levels, and release feel-good hormones like oxytocin. It can also promote feelings of safety, nurturing, and trust.
Give a comforting touch.
Sometimes people are not comfortable with a hug, but they may welcome a less intimate physical touch. A simple pat on the shoulder, hand on the arm, gentle hand squeeze, or positioning close to the person can offer some of the same benefits of a hug by reminding the person that they are not alone.
Listen to them vent.
It is common for people with anxiety to have a lot of thoughts in their heads. Often, they feel like they cannot express themselves without judgment and shame. Offering a safe space for them to vent their thoughts is helpful.
Remember, this time is only about listening. Be sure you are actively listening by repeating phrases, nodding, maintaining eye contact, avoiding distractions, and asking a few clarifying questions. It is not a time to offer solutions, opinions, or ideas for how to help. It is simply an opportunity for your loved one to release some of their internal struggles safely.
Provide a distraction.
Sometimes people struggling with anxiety need a distraction from their thoughts. This can be something as simple as a physical object to focus on such as a stress ball, fidget toy, doodling, or making something.
Some people benefit from a more concrete distraction. Things like a change of scenery, a walk, a drive, or a hike can give the person a chance to clear their head and feel relief from their anxiety. Avoid things like social media and the news as that can increase anxiety.
When a person feels anxious, their body often responds in ways they are not even aware of. One common response is by changing breathing to become shallower. To counteract that, you can consciously breathe differently.
“Deep breathing (sometimes called diaphragmatic breathing) is a practice that enables more air to flow into your body and can help calm your nerves, reducing stress and anxiety.” (McKenna Princing) This does not need to be anything fancy. Instead, it is best to keep it simple.
There are many ways to breathe deeply, so play around to find one that feels natural to you. Try breathing in for four counts, then out for six. Or try square breathing: in for four, hold for four, out for four, hold for four. As long as you’re still keeping your breathing slow and deep, there’s no pattern that’s better than the others. – McKenna Princing
Pray with or for them.
While anxiety is something that can be a medical condition, we cannot discount the power of prayer. This does not mean we should only offer this solution, but it does mean that there are benefits to prayer for anxiety.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:6-7, NIV
Praying with your loved one is a powerful way to help them with their anxiety. If they are not interested in praying with you, you can pray for them. This can be done in their presence, on their own, or both.
It is important to remember that prayer is often something to do more than once. Even the verse in Philippians reminds us that it is prayer and petition working together that reap the benefits of peace. Consider how you can pray both with and for your loved one to help ease their anxiety.
Help them find support.
Anxiety can be something people navigate on their own, but it is often beneficial for them to find help. This can be done in a variety of ways. Support can include:
- Talking to a trusted friend.
- Conferring with a pastor.
- Attending a support group.
- Seeing a professional counselor.
- Talking to their doctor.
Additionally, some tools and strategies can help them navigate their anxiety. These are often used in conjunction with some of the supports above. Options include:
- Scripture writing.
- Breathing exercises.
- Physical activity.
- Adequate rest.
- Proper nutrition.
- Listening to music.
While there is not a single cure for anxiety, people can find relief. You can help your loved one discover the combination that helps them navigate and find relief from their anxiety.
We are here to help.You and your loved one do not need to navigate this alone. The professional counselors in our office are here to help.
As you begin with meeting your loved one’s needs, you can encourage them to reach out to a counselor. Sometimes encouragement from someone else will give them the courage to reach out for help from a professional. You can also research counselors and talk about counseling to destigmatize the idea of seeking help.
The support we offer doesn’t end there. We are here for you, too. Loving someone who is struggling with anxiety or any mental wellness issues can be challenging. It can be hard to know what to do or say. Similarly, it can be difficult to sort through your feelings about the changes in your relationship because of the person’s anxiety or other struggles.
The counselors in our office are here for you. We can help you understand and process things for you and as you support your loved one. Call today to schedule an appointment.
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