How to Help a Friend or Loved One with Anxiety
Anxiety is a term that gets thrown around a lot. People talk about being anxious or having anxiety over a situation, but what exactly does that mean? By definition anxiety is a feeling of intense worry or uneasiness, usually brought on when we’re facing something stressful, like a situation where we’re not sure what will happen. Often in a situation like this feeling some anxiety is normal, and can even be helpful, like motivating us to study for a test or prepare for a presentation.
But when our anxiety gets too intense, or goes on for a long time, it stops being helpful and starts interfering with our lives. If you have a friend or loved one who’s feeling acutely anxious, or exhibiting signs of continued anxiousness, there are ways you can help.
Starting the Conversation
When we’re worried about someone in our life it’s important to let them know, but how to go about this sensitively can be tricky. Here are some helpful conversation starters to get you started:
- Talk about what you’ve observed:
- “I noticed you missed a few classes/hangouts recently”
- “I noticed you’ve been quieter than usual”
- “You seemed stressed the last few times we talked”
You can also be less specific: “It seems like something is going on with you” or “It feels like you haven’t been yourself lately.” Your friend will likely be touched that you’ve reached out but they may not be ready to talk, and that’s ok. Just knowing you noticed might make it easier for them to open up when they’re ready.
- Ask an open-ended question:
- “What’s going on in your world?”
- “How’ve you been lately?”
- “Is there anything you want to talk about?”
- Let them know you want to help:
- “I’m here to talk and to listen”
- “I want to know if you’re really okay”
- “I’m worried that you’re struggling”
- Want more options? Our Seize the Awkward conversation starter generator can help you find more ways to get the conversation going.
Some Conversation Do’s and Don’ts
As you enter into a discussion, you don’t have to go directly into asking about their anxiety or mental health. Often people are more open and receptive if you start out with lighter topics and ease into the things that might worry you. You aren’t a therapist, nor should you try to be, so even if they start opening up, your conversation can remain more casual while still taking their anxiety seriously.
Do → Share Your Own Struggles
It’s ok to share some of your own struggles (either with anxiety or in general) to signal to your friend that you’re comfortable with vulnerability — yours and theirs. When we’re vulnerable it makes it easier for them to be, as well.
Do → Listen
Keep your ears open and let them take the lead. It’s ok to ask open-ended questions to help them open up, but allow them to set the pace of the conversation. Try not to pry too much, but don’t give up right away, either. Long periods of silence are alright, too.
Do → Trust Your Gut
Unfortunately, there’s no instruction manual on how to check in with someone who might be struggling with anxiety. The most important thing is to be authentic, even if it’s awkward. If you care, say you care. If you’re not sure what to say, you can say something like, “This is kinda awkward and hard to talk about, but, I care about you and my gut is telling me that something is up with you. If my gut is right, would you be willing to share a little about what’s going on?” The words matter a lot less than being honest. We’re all unique, so finding a way that works for both of you is key. Sometimes the effort is all that matters.
Don’t → Put Pressure on Them
As with most conversations, trying to get someone to talk when they aren’t ready rarely works and often backfires. No matter how close the relationship, they just might not be ready to talk about what’s making them anxious or realize they’re suffering from anxiety in the first place.
Don’t → Give Unsolicited Advice
When people we love are hurting, it’s natural to want to try and fix them, but unless they’ve explicitly asked, try not to give advice. If you have advice to share that you think might help, you can check in about how receptive they’re feeling by saying something like, “I have some thoughts/reflections to share, but want to respect where you are because I know sometimes outside opinions aren’t helpful. Is it ok if I share or should I wait for another time?” If your friend signals that they want you to wait (verbally or nonverbally), do what you need to do to let it go so you can stay present to your friend in the moment.
What you can do to help
Once you’ve had a conversation and they know you’re there for them, ask if they need support and let them know you’re willing to help. You might suggest doing something fun together like working out, watching a show or movie and talking about it afterwards, or simply connecting by phone or facetime.
As with any stressor, self-care can go a long way in helping with anxiety. If they’re feeling overwhelmed, here are some other things they can do to help: eat a good diet, exercise regularly, avoid drugs/alcohol, take breaks, lean on friends and family, and modify their environment to reduce stress like keeping their room or workspace clean and organizing and sticking to a routine or schedule.
Listening to music or a podcast can also be calming or soothing, as can journaling, taking a walk, disconnecting from the news or social media, or performing some deep breathing or meditation. These apps or sites are a good place to start:
When they need more help than you can give
So what can you do if you think your loved one needs more help than they’re accessing or than you can offer? If at any time you feel their anxiety is becoming too much, or they tell you they need help, suggest they speak to a trained professional such as a primary care doctor or a therapist. If their need appears to be immediate, text “START” to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for help.