What exactly do you say to a loved one who is feeling extreme stress? How do you make them feel better if you can’t process what’s going on yourself? It may feel like a challenge, but the truth is, anxiety disorders are more relatable than you realize — and there are ways to offer your support, Todd Farchione, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University, tells The Huffington Post.
“These are human emotions that we all experience. It may manifest as a deep fear or some sort of anxiety for some and may manifest for you as something else,” Farchione says. “Fear itself is something we all experience, so when talking to someone with anxiety it’s really all about just connecting with them.”
The key way to make that connection with an anxiety sufferer is by offering support without judgment, he says. Loved ones may think they’re helping by telling someone to calm down or stop sweating the small stuff, but in reality, such sayings could be exacerbating an already taxing mental health issue.
So what should we be doing and saying? Below find five supportive ways to help someone cope with anxiety.
“Can you tell me more about your experience?”
Approaching a loved one who is dealing with the condition requires distinct sensitivity, Farchione says. One way to do that is by posing questions that make them feel comfortable opening up.
“If you really want to help somebody, then the way you should go about it is to ask yourself if you can be supportive of the individual in a way that allows them to tell you about what they’re experiencing and why they may be experiencing that,” he says. “Then work with them in a gentle way to think about their anxiety in a different way, like offering a supportive statement that is in conflict with what they’re actually thinking about.”
“I’m sorry you’re going through that.”
Part of the challenging terrain of anxiety and panic disorders is dealing with panic attacks, fear-laden episodes that cause an overwhelming sense of dread. If you’ve never experienced one of these attacks — which can also be physically debilitating — approaching a loved one with sympathy rather than concern may be the most effective method.
“The worst thing you could do is to panic and contribute to the high level of emotion that’s already occurring,” Farchione says. “That’s adding fuel to the fire and can take the form of lacking compassion for what they’re experiencing.”
Farchione stresses the importance of being there for a loved one when they’re undergoing such duress. Panic attacks, while frightening, do pass, he says. “Being panicky about their panic isn’t going to help with that process.”
“This is not your fault.”
“It’s important not to diminish their experience,” explains Farchione. “Being supportive is about being willing to hear what they have to say and to be understanding. But in order to reach that level of understanding, that involves validating what they’re going through.”
However, it’s important to recognize that suffering without further enabling anxiety, Farchione warns. “Be careful not to be an accomplice of their fear,” he says. “Being understanding doesn’t mean we have to accommodate their fears, which families do quite often. It could just be feeding the idea that there is something to be afraid of.”
“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 — an important factor when it comes to genuinely offering your support, Farchione says.
We often want to take action in order to help a loved one, when all they really need in the moment is a shoulder to lean on and the acknowledgement that what they’re going through is difficult. Empathy can make a huge difference for someone who is feeling anxious. “The paradox is, [an empathetic phrase] helps them calm down because they don’t feel like they have to fight for their anxiety,” Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, previously told HuffPost Healthy Living. “It shows some understanding.”
When it comes down to it, Farchoine says it’s not necessarily what you say that really matters, but how supportive you come across. Sometimes the simple act of lending an ear can be more than enough. “Be willing to offer your time to that individual,” he says. “That’s such an overlooked component between two individuals. Sometimes what’s the most helpful for someone with anxiety is just having someone listen to their experience and that’s it.”