The basic definition of anxiety is a feeling of fear, uneasiness, or dread. But obvi, it’s a lot more complicated than that. Anxiety disorders affect around 40 million adults every year, and symptoms can vary from person to person.
While everyone is different, there are some common ways you can help someone you care about deal with their anxiety. Here’s a deep dive into the most common types of anxiety. We also have top-notch advice from mental health experts.
Here are some ways you can actively show your support and help someone with anxiety.
1. Learn about the different types of anxiety and signs of them
“Anxiety is a natural emotion and physiological shift that occurs when people perceive potential harm toward oneself or others,” says psychologist Timothy Yen, PsyD. “Anxiety gears them up for a fight-or-flight response to address the danger, either to eliminate the threat or run away from it.”
Understanding the different types of anxiety — and the common signs and symptoms — can help you help your loved one. Here’s what you need to know.
Generalized anxiety disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is what typically first comes to mind when people think of anxiety. GAD is characterized by:
- chronic anxiety
- exaggerated worries and tension
A common panic disorder symptom is panic attacks.
“With panic attacks, it’s first important to learn the signs so that you can help your friend identify what’s happening to them,” says psychologist Heather Z. Lyons PhD.
Here are some signs to look out for:
- unexpected episodes of intense fear
- chest pain
- heart palpitations
- shortness of breath
- stomach probs like gas, cramping, or diarrhea
Social phobia (or social anxiety disorder)
Social phobia (aka social anxiety disorder) is characterized by:
- overwhelming anxiety
- excessive self-consciousness in everyday social situations
- fear of eating in front of others
- fear of public speaking
- fear of being in public
Keep in mind, symptoms can range from mild to severe. Some folks have no problem socializing in certain situations. But other folks can find any type of social setting to be triggering.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- recurring unwanted thoughts (obsessions)
- repetitive or ritualistic behaviors (compulsions)
These “rituals” tend to lend temporary anxiety relief. But failing to do them can trigger feelings of unease.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
PTSD can happen if someone is exposed to a traumatic event like:
- natural disasters
- military combat
- abuse of all kinds
Signs of anxiety to look for
Again, anxiety symptoms can vary from person to person. But there are some general signs to look out for:
- lack of focus
- frequent muscle clenching
- avoiding social situations
- teeth grinding
- seeking constant reassurance
- second-guessing themselves
- compulsive actions
- shortness of breath
- easily fatigued
- constantly expecting the worse
- jumping to conclusions
2. Provide validation
Sometimes a simple validation can make a big difference. That means taking the time to really listen to what they’re going through and acknowledging their feelings.
“Oftentimes we move too quickly toward reassurance that ‘everything is going to be okay,'” says Yen. This can underscore a person’s feelings and might make them feel judged.
Instead, Yen recommends first letting them know that you get where they’re coming from.
- Say: “I understand why you’re worried about this test. You’re concerned that failing could jeopardize your acceptance to your top school.”
- Don’t say: “C’mon, it’s just a test. You’re overreacting. You just need to chill out and study.”
Once your friend feels validated and heard, you can open the convo up a bit.
3. Try a grounding exercise
During a panic attack or anxiety episode, people might feel disconnected from the world around them. Grounding is a great way to refocus someone’s attention back to reality.
Here are some grounding techniques to try together:
Feel the floor beneath your feet
Gravity’s a trip, y’all. Since we can’t concentrate on everything at once, our selective attention doesn’t typically notice things like the feeling of the floor beneath our feet or the chair we’re sitting on. So, ask your friend if you could take a moment together to just notice the physical world that’s holding them up.
Focus on your breath
Listen to the world around you
Lyons recommends turning your friend’s attention to a repetitive sound or music. Just make sure it’s slow and soothing, like the hum of a heater or the sound of a soft piano piece. The consistency and repetitions can be very comforting.
Meditation is worth the hype. It’s a great way to reduce stress and alleviate anxiety. Ask your friend to participate in 10 minutes of silent meditation or guided imagery. Psst. Here’s a Greatist guide to meditation for anxiety.
4. Determine your support role
There are lots of different roles you can take to support a person with anxiety.
“When our loved ones are in distress, they often need us to either distract them by cheering them up, be with them by listening and ensuring our availability, or help them with what we can do for them,” says Lyons.
Here are examples of things you can say, depending on your role.
When you distract someone, you can offer ways to take their mind off their anxiety.
- “Let’s watch *insert fave escapist show* together, what do you say?”
- “Maybe we should go to yoga class.”
- “Let’s grab some food.”
When you do, you take direct action.
- “I’ll help you organize your closet.”
- “I have a really good therapist. I can ask for a referral for you.”
- “I’m going to pick up a pizza for you.”
Being can be as simple as letting them know you’re always there for them.
- “Do you want to talk about it?”
- “Do you want me to stop by? If not, do you want to FaceTime?”
- “You’re not a burden and I always have your back.”
Now that you know what to do to help a friend out, here’s what not to do.
1. Don’t overload them with questions
It’s only natural to be curious about what your friend is feeling. But bombarding them with questions can be overwhelming AF.
“A person having a panic attack is already flooded,” says Lyons. “It might be difficult for them to summon the executive functioning skills to answer your questions.”
So, if you find yourself sounding more like Barbara Walters than a supportive friend, give it a rest. Give them a chance to open up when they’re ready.
2. Don’t tell them how they should feel
“Usually, when we’re trying to talk loved ones out of feeling something painful, what we’re trying to do is rescue them from feeling pain,” says Lyons.
But even if your heart is in the right place, this isn’t serving your friend or what they’re feeling.
“What ends up happening is that they either end up feeling invalidated or they become resolute in their feelings through the process of arguing their point,” says Lyons.
You def don’t want your well-meaning pep talk to turn into a disagreement. So don’t tell them how they should feel.
3. Don’t co-ruminate
There’s a difference between validating your friend and enabling them. Lyons recommends avoiding what’s some psychologists call co-ruminating.
“While it’s important to empathize with friends’ anxiety by letting them know that you hear how difficult this time is for them,” she says. “It’s important to stop short of fueling their anxiety with your own worst-case scenarios.”
#True. So, though you obvi always want to hype your BFF up, feeding their anxiety isn’t the way to go about it.
Even if you’re the most generous and helpful friend of all time, your loved one might also need support from a pro.
According to Lyons, it’s time to seek professional help when “their anxiety is impacting their functioning (sleep, eating, work, relationships) or they have a desire to better understand their anxiety and how to respond to it.”
However, even if *you* think your friend needs help, it’s really up to them.
“You can’t force someone to get help if they don’t want it,” Lyons says. “The most you can do is let them know you’re here when they’re ready.”
If you’ve gone to therapy or have received help for your mental health, consider talking about your positive experience with it. Just try not to be pushy.
If they do agree to get help, consider offering further support by:
- Direct them to resources. You can give them the deets on online therapy or help them track down a therapist in their area.
- Help them get to their appointments. If you’re up for it, offer to drive them to their sessions. Or, invite them out for coffee after if they want to talk with you about it.
- Support yourself. Devote time to self-care so you can show up as your best self for you as well as your loved ones.
Anxiety disorders may seem to be everywhere these days. But the good news is that they can be highly treatable, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).
Anxiety is often professionally treated with one or both of the following:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT involves learning how to manage anxiety in the face of potentially stressful situations. It might include journaling, grounding, or mindfulness techniques.
- Medication. Anxiety is sometimes treated with medications, including serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like Prozac, Zoloft, or Lexapro.
- Combo. Therapy and meds can make a great combo. Your loved one’s healthcare professional might suggest doing both, especially in the beginning of treatment.
Other ways to potentially ease anxiety include:
- Exercise. Working out releases endorphins and may ease anxiety.
- Meditate. It’s not just a buzzword. Meditation is a great way to stay grounded and curb stress.
- Breathwork. Inhale peace, exhale anxiety. Repeat. It might seem too simple to be legit, but srsly it works.
- Other mindfulness techniques. Along with meditation and breathwork, there are loads of mindfulness techniques that can help peeps relax.
- Vitamin D. Getting enough vitamin D can pump up the volume on serotonin levels.
- Curbing caffeine and alcohol intake. Caffeine and alcohol are stimulants that might trigger anxiety.
- Support groups. Sharing woes and wins with others who “get it” can be a huge relief.
PSA: Anxiety isn’t a one-size-fits-all condition, and neither are treatments. It might take some trial and error to find the right balance for your unique needs.
Here are the answers to all of your top anxiety questions.
How do you calm someone with anxiety?
When you notice someone feeling anxious you can:
- Provide validation. Don’t dismiss their anxieties. This can just make matters worse. Instead, validate their feelings and make it clear that you hear them.
- Encourage grounding. Try grounding techniques together like deep breathing. This can help bring the person into the present moment and out of an anxious spiral.
- Determine your support role. Try to distract your friend with activities, do helpful tasks for them, or simply be there for them and provide a positive presence.
What is the 3-3-3 rule for anxiety?
The 3-3-3 “distracts you from the ‘what ifs’ that tend to fuel anxiety and focuses you on the present moment,” says Lyons. It has three simple steps with three parts:
- Sight. First, name three things you can see. Take a good look at the lamp on your desk, a building off in the distance, or the pattern of cracks in the ceiling.
- Sound. Then, name three sounds you can hear. The gentle sound of the wind outside or the quiet whirr of the fridge gets a lot louder with conscious attention.
- Touch. Finally, move three parts of your bod. For example, wiggle your toes, tap your fingers, or roll your head from side to side.
How do I help someone having a panic attack?
“When it comes to a panic attack, the main focus is to help the individual realize that they are safe NOW,” Yen explains. Here’s how you can help:
- Have them describe the room around them.
- Take deep breaths through the nose and slowly out the mouth together with them.
- Tell them that the panic attack is only temporary and it will pass.
- Have them splash some cold water on their face.
“These interventions help the brain catch up with the body that the fight-or-flight reaction is inappropriate for the current situation,” says Yen.
How can I help someone with anxiety over text?
When it comes to anxiety, Lyons says face-to-face communication is best. But alas, that’s not always possible. If you have to help a friend over text, let them know you’re there in an unintrusive way.
Lyons suggests sending them a fun article or a meme that made you think of them. Establishing a connection can go a long way. And from there you can ask how they’re doing and provide further support.
How do I help someone with anxiety who doesn’t want help?
Take it from the pros. You can’t force support on someone who doesn’t want it. Instead, Lyons recommends letting your loved one know you’re there for them whenever they’re ready.
In the meantime, stay available, responsive, and nonjudgmental.
How do I help someone who has suicidal thoughts?
Suicidal thoughts should always be taken seriously. According to Lyons, you should, “Follow up. Ask direct questions. Do they have a plan? Do they have a means to act? If so, respond. Let them know that what you’re hearing is serious.”
Next, call a crisis response line or 911.
Even if your friend doesn’t have a plan to act, Lyons still advises encouraging them to seek support from a professional.
She also recommends that you:
- Listen to them.
- Talk with them about it.
- Check in regularly.
“Sometimes people think that talking about it will motivate their loved one to act, but that’s not how suicidal ideation works,” Lyons says. “Don’t avoid the topic.”
If someone you know is experiencing anxiety, there are lots of ways you can help. The most important first step is letting them know that you’re there for them and that you’re a safe person that they can trust. You should also let them feel their feelings and make sure they know their concerns are valid.
You can also encourage them to seek professional support. But remember, you can “bring a horse to the water” but you can’t make it do therapy. So be patient and let them know you can help them find a provider if they change their mind in the future.