6 tips on how to help someone with anxiety
Living with an anxiety disorder can leave you feeling drained, helpless, and frustrated. So can supporting someone with one. Anxiety doesn’t just affect the person living with the condition—it affects their family members and loved ones, too.
If you’re concerned that someone you love could be living with this complex mental health condition, it can be tough to gauge the best way to approach them. Here, we offer our best suggestions for how to start the conversation with an anxious person—and ensure your loved one gets the help and care they need.
What is anxiety? Anxiety vs. anxiety disorders
Short-term anxiety is a normal response to a stressful or difficult situation; a way for our bodies to warn us of danger and force us to be on alert. An anxiety disorder, however, occurs when symptoms of anxiety are out-of-proportion to the situation at hand, impossible to control, and/or start to interfere with one’s everyday life.
Anxiety disorders are the most common diagnosable mental health conditions. An estimated 30% of adults will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives. Symptoms are both mental and physical and managing symptoms requires professional support.
How are anxiety disorders treated?
While social support can lead to better outcomes for people who are living with anxiety, professional treatment is key to managing symptoms.
The first step to treating an anxiety disorder is getting a diagnosis from a qualified mental healthcare professional, like a psychiatrist. From there, a psychiatrist or other mental health professional can recommend a personalized treatment plan.
Treatment can make a huge difference in overall quality of life and typically includes talk therapy sessions (including cognitive behavioral therapy or CBT), medication (like antidepressants), or both. While therapists use talk therapy to help people overcome their symptoms, psychiatrists can prescribe medications to manage the condition and may also use talk therapy techniques.
How can you help someone with anxiety?
If you’re not a psychiatrist or therapist yourself, it may not be clear how to best approach a friend or loved one you suspect is living with an anxiety disorder. These six suggestions are a good starting point.
1. Learn the symptoms and signs of anxiety
Anxiety can feel deeply isolating, and you shouldn’t assume that a friend or loved one will automatically open up to you about what they’re experiencing.
Instead, it’s useful to know the symptoms of an anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder or social anxiety disorder, so that you can be alert to anyone in your life who might be suffering in silence.
Although symptoms can vary, and depend on the type of anxiety disorder someone is experiencing, behaviors to look out for include:
- Restlessness or irritability
- Acting withdrawn
- Sleep problems like sleeping too much or insomnia
- Difficulty concentrating
- Physical symptoms like headaches or stomachaches
- Irrational or excessive fear about specific things (phobias)
- Sudden periods of intense fear accompanied by sweating or shaking (panic attacks)
- Excessive distress when separated from friends or loved ones
- Excessive fear of everyday social situations
If you’ve noticed any of these symptoms in a friend or loved one, especially if it seems to be impacting their daily life, it may be worth gently approaching them about what they’re experiencing and letting them know you’re there to offer support. You can start the conversation by simply telling your loved one that you’ve noticed they’ve been acting a bit different lately.
For example, you might say something like, “Hey, you don’t seem interested in going out with friends lately. Is everything OK?”
2. Make them comfortable
Whether or not your friend decides to open up to you about what they’re experiencing, it’s important to signal to them that they are safe to do so with you. Explain that they can share their feelings and thoughts without fear of judgment or rejection.
You can also make sure that conversations with your friend are distraction-free, and that your body language is open and welcoming—for example, avoid being on your phone, and make eye contact and nod when appropriate.
3. Listen to their feelings
If your loved one does opt to share, it’s important to listen with empathy and validate their experiences when they express themselves to you. This will not only help your loved one feel less alone, but it will also help you understand what they’re going through and what type of help could most benefit them.
It may also help you better understand the triggers for their anxious thoughts, and how you can best support them through challenging moments.
4. Express your concern
It’s OK to tell your loved one that you’re worried about their well-being. Sometimes having an outside perspective can make all the difference, particularly when it comes to seeking help for a mental health condition. Let them know specifically why you’re concerned—what behaviors and actions you may have observed. Listen emphatically as they respond.
5. Know what not to do
Don’t discredit, invalidate, assign blame, or tell them to “stop worrying” or that it’s “not a big deal.” Anxiety disorders cannot be cured with willpower; they are treatable mental health conditions. Encouraging someone struggling with their mental health to “get over it” can trigger feelings of shame and negative thought patterns, and may prevent them from seeking help.
6. Recommend they talk to a professional
Anxiety disorders cannot be self-diagnosed, nor can they be diagnosed by concerned friends or loved ones. Anxiety disorders can only be diagnosed by a mental health professional.
If, after talking to your friend, you suspect they may be living with an anxiety disorder, it’s important to encourage them to seek professional help. You’ve already done them a great service by listening without judgment—the next step is encouraging them to get the care they need.
With Talkiatry, your loved one can see a psychiatrist from the comfort of your home and they can schedule your first appointment in a matter of days. We offer a free online assessment to see if Talkiatry is the right fit and get matched with a psychiatrist.
When to seek immediate care
There are some situations when a loved one might need immediate, emergency intervention. Symptoms that may indicate someone is in crisis include:
- Talk of self-harm or suicide.
- Extreme reckless behavior, including excessive use of drugs or alcohol.
- Withdrawal from loved ones and society.
If you’re ever worried that your friend or family member may be a danger to themselves or others, trust your gut. Call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.
Talkiatry is a national psychiatry practice that provides in-network, virtual care. Co-founded by a patient and a triple-board-certified psychiatrist, Talkiatry has over 300 doctors, 60 insurance partners, and first visits available in days. We treat patients with anxiety, depression, trauma, ADHD, and more. Get started with a short online assessment.
The information in this article is for informational and educational purposes only and should never be substituted for medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.
Dr. Mendez-Maldonado is double board-certified in general psychiatry and geriatric psychiatry. She received her medical degree from the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine. She then moved to New York to complete her residency training At Mount Sinai Beth Israel where she stayed to complete her fellowship in geriatric psychiatry. After her fellowship, she proceeded to work at Woodhull Hospital where she worked as an attending before becoming unit chief and running their Special Pathogens Unit during the COVID-19 pandemic.
She focuses on medication management and offers this in conjunction with supportive therapy, cognitive-behavioral techniques, a focus on nutritional psychiatry, and 30-minute follow-up visits.
Dr. Mendez-Maldonado focuses on integrating nutrition, physical activity, and mindfulness techniques alongside pharmacotherapy to achieve a well-rounded approach to mental health.