For those who haven’t been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, it might be difficult to truly understand what’s going on inside the mind of the 40 million American adults who live with it.
What exactly do you say to a loved one who is feeling extreme stress and anxiety? How do you make them feel better if you can’t understand it or relate to it yourself? It may feel like a fool’s errand, but the truth is, anxiety disorders are more relatable than you think.
The symptoms of anxiety are just human emotions that we all experience. Fear, for example, is something we all experience as human beings. It may manifest as a deeper more intense fear for some, and it may manifest for you as something more manageable.
So when talking to someone with anxiety it’s really all about just connecting with them. It’s about understanding the subtleties of what makes them anxious and then picturing how it would feel if you felt like that feeling/situation was way past your own personal point of control.
Some people may think they’re helping by telling someone to calm down or stop sweating the small stuff, but in reality, such sayings could be worsening an already challenging mental health issue. The key way to making that connection is by offering support without judgment.
So what should we be doing and/or saying?
1. “Can you tell me more about your experience?”
Approaching a loved one who is dealing with a lot of anxiety in that moment requires sensitivity. The first step is to remember to pose questions that make them feel comfortable opening up to you.
2. “I’m sorry you’re going through that.”
Part of the challenge with anxiety and panic disorders is dealing with panic attacks. If you’ve never experienced one of these attacks, which can feel like you are losing all control of yourself mind and body, approaching a loved one with sympathy rather than concern is the most effective method.
The worst thing you could do is add to the panic by being concerned yourself, which is just a lower level of panic. Being panicky about their panic isn’t going to help.
3. “That must be really hard for you.”
Phrases like “that must be really hard for you” or “please let me know what I can do” can be validating, a very important factor when it comes to being supportive. We often want to take action in order to help a loved one, when all they really need is to be in the moment, have a shoulder to lean on, and the acknowledgement that what they’re going through is difficult.
4. “This too shall pass.”
As with nearly everything else that is in this world, anxiety also comes and goes. When you’re feeling an enormous amount of anxiety or stress and you feel like you’re out of control or going crazy or as if you’re going to explode, just hearing the words “This too shall pass” can really help. Uncertainty is without a doubt the most powerful and common antecedent to anxiety. When we feel out of control in any way, we are almost assuredly going to experience some varying degree of anxiety.
However, once you realize that it won’t last forever, well, it begins to go away.
It’s not always what you say that really matters, but instead how supportive you come across. Sometimes the simple act of lending an ear can be more than enough than anything else you may try doing or saying. Sometimes what’s the most helpful for someone with anxiety is just having someone listen to their experience and that’s it. Nothing more. Nothing less.