Your question: What should I say if someone is anxious?

My reply:

Hi, I hope this message finds you well. My name is Cesar Guedez, a psychologist trained in cognitive behavioral therapy. Through this article I would like to explain to you how you can help a person who is suffering from anxiety, whether it is a friend, family member, partner, loved one in general, or even a stranger, by explaining what are the things you should say and what techniques you can implement to make that person feel better.

Experiencing anxiety is a fairly common occurrence in everyday life. People feel anxiety when their brain perceives a threat, whether real or imagined, triggering distressing physical and emotional symptoms that unbalance its functioning.

Although anxiety is normal and necessary, it can become a problem when it is very intense and recurrent, and when it occurs in important daily activities such as work, studies or interpersonal relationships. Therefore, learning to manage anxiety, both your own and that of others, is vitally useful.

You have probably seen a loved one experience anxiety and it makes you helpless. Naturally, you wouldn’t want to see someone you care about suffer, and you’re probably wondering how you could help make that person feel better.

While you can’t “cure” anyone’s anxiety, you can help others manage their anxious symptoms through clear and effective strategies that require practice and attention. You don’t have to be a psychologist or a professional to help someone who is suffering from anxiety. What is important is that you are careful about what to say and do to avoid aggravating the other person’s state of anxiety.

How do you know if  a person is anxious?

Before helping a person with anxiety it is necessary to understand that the thoughts, and therefore the things that people in an anxiety episode say, are not always supported by logic or reality. Anxiety creates automatic, dysfunctional thoughts that can make the person feel threatened, harassed or assaulted even though this is not happening in reality.

You need to first learn to recognize the symptoms of anxiety before you are ready to help the person. Anxiety manifests itself physically and emotionally, and each person expresses it differently according to his or her personality traits and social context. Some characteristic symptoms are:

  • Sweating and tachycardia.
  • Nausea 
  • Agitated or shortness of breath.
  • Psychomotor agitation.
  • Problems to concentrate.
  • Intense fear or panic.
  • Feeling that something terrible is about to happen.
  • Desire to run away from a stressful situation.
  • Irritability or intense sadness.

What NOT to say to someone with anxiety?

There are some key things to keep in mind about what NOT to say or do if you want to help a person with anxiety. This is very important because it could increase the other person’s anxiety, and in addition, it could make you anxious while you are trying to help.

Do not minimize

Avoid saying to the person phrases such as “it’s nothing, it will pass”, “calm down and breathe, it’s not a big deal” or “I already went through something like this and it wasn’t that hard, calm down”. This generates frustration and irritability in the anxious person. In addition, during anxiety people do not think rationally, so a problem that may seem minimal to you or have an obvious solution, will not be for the anxious person.

Don’t nag

Phrases like “it’s your fault you feel this way” or “you should have organized your time better” is detrimental to people with anxiety because it is perceived as a criticism or scolding that has no use in the situation. In addition to generating more irritability and anxiety in the other person, it is likely to cause them to generate resentment and emotional distance from you in the future.

Don’t give trite “solutions”

Many people, trying to help, tell an anxious person things like “have you tried yoga or meditation?” or “take a deep breath and it will go away”. The problem is that although some of these recommendations are effective in reducing the symptoms of anxiety, as is the case with yoga and meditation, saying them at the time of an anxious episode only generates more distress and worry in the person.

Do not make physical contact without asking

I remember during a clinical psychology class in college a classmate asked the professor if it was okay to give a hug to a person who is suffering from anxiety or a panic attack. The answer then and now is the same – no. Physical contact without consent can make the person with anxiety feel more exalted and invaded in their personal space.

What can you do and say to help someone with anxiety?

There are several strategies you can implement to help someone who is experiencing anxiety, keeping in mind that you must monitor yourself during the process. Helping someone with anxiety can be exhausting and can generate stressful symptoms, so be aware of your own feelings, and seek professional help when you feel yourself starting to manifest anxiety:

Just be there to listen

Many people who experience anxiety are waiting for someone who will simply listen to them without judgment(1). Being there for that person, serving as an outlet for all the worries and anxieties in their life is helpful. Also, validate their emotions through phrases such as “that sounds very complicated, how are you coping?”. This will allow the person to feel that you understand them and that their sense of anxiety is not false.

Help them breathe

Instead of simply saying “calm down and breathe,” be the one to help the anxious person breathe. Through imitation, show the person brief breathing exercises. “Close your eyes and inhale and exhale in three-second intervals, while mentalizing a peaceful and calm scenario of your choice.” By giving the person these instructions, while doing the exercise with them in a calm space, you will have taught them a strategy that they will be able to apply when you are not present.

Acknowledge their achievements

This is very useful for moments when the person is not going through moments of anxiety. If, for example, you notice that for some time now that person has a calmer and more relaxed attitude, congratulate them on that.

Help them to get professional help

Some people find it difficult to seek psychological care because they have prejudices associated with it and do not want to feel “sick”. If you see that the anxiety of the person you want to help is getting worse, help him to get a therapist, research in your close circle a professional you trust and encourage them to attend, telling them that it will help them to manage the things they feel unable to do on their own.

In my experience…

Before helping someone deal with their anxiety or any other emotional problem, you need to look at your own emotional state and general well-being. Helping and supporting others in their bad times can be very rewarding, because if the important people in your life are well, you are more likely to feel well too.

Therefore, you should keep in mind that even if you have the best intentions to help, there may be times when the person you want to help needs extra professional support that you will not be able to provide. This does not make you a bad friend, partner or family member, it is something that could happen to anyone.

Either way, there is a solution to anxiety, whether it is your own or that of a loved one, and through effective therapeutic strategies the emotional state of whomever is suffering from anxiety will improve in due time and pace. And remember, any accomplishments and improvements you notice in someone with anxiety are to be celebrated.

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