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woman supporting friend with anxiety

How to Help a Friend Dealing With Anxiety

what you can look for and what you can do

Mental health has been a hot topic lately, especially considering the pandemic. People are facing more uncertainty, spending time in isolation, going through relational and financial hardships—you name it. But even if it’s not that dire, anxiety can still be a problem. And even if you are doing OK, someone close to you could be having a hard time. How can you tell if someone you love is dealing with anxiety or other mental health issues? Can you help?

Signs of Anxiety

Lauren Taff, licensed counselor with Taylor Counseling Group, says one of the simplest ways to determine whether someone is experiencing anxiety is by noticing their body language. “Do their shoulders look scrunched up by their ears?” she asks. “Are they continuously clenching their jaws? Do they look fidgety? Do they have shaky hands or are they bouncing their legs? You can tell a lot about a person by merely observing their physical symptoms.”

But since we’re not seeing as many people face-to-face as we usually do, body language could be difficult to observe. Luckily, Taff says there are other ways to notice if someone is struggling. Look for changes in:

  • Speech patterns (over-talking or not talking at all)
  • Demeanor or mood (seeming sadder than normal or beaten down)
  • Facial expression (tensed facial muscles, furrowed brow)
  • Conversation topics (frequent complaining, talking as if on a loop)
  • Basic hygiene
  • Sleep patterns
  • School or work performance or attention to household chores
  • Appetite

Taff says everything stated above is very important. But the best advice she says she can give is to think back on how your friend or family member normally behaves, then see if you can tell a difference in their behavior.

“Not everybody will show anxiety in the same way,” Taff notes. “For example, some people show anxiety by talking rapidly, like their thoughts are firing a mile a minute. Others seem so burdened by their anxiety that they can barely speak at all. If you know your loved one well enough and you notice a big difference in their behavior, that is a good indicator something is going on.”

And if you do notice something concerning, ask them! “Most people will be searching for a safe outlet to discuss all of their anxieties,” Taff adds.

How to Support Someone with Anxiety

If your friend indeed is struggling with anxiety, what are some ways you can support them? Obviously, people feel loved and supported in different ways. Taff suggests that if you don’t know where to start, begin with the basics.

“Are they struggling to meet the most basic needs, such as taking care of themselves and their family? Do they wish they had more time to make healthy meals for their family? Consider picking up their groceries on your next grocery run. Do they need some peace and quiet? Take their kids on a walk so they can have some downtime. Even if the person is struggling with anxiety, when you meet a person’s most basic need, you will automatically be providing them with a sense of relief and a decrease in anxiety,” Taff notes.

Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Sure, sometimes they might not know, but other times they will. “If they don’t know, go back to the basics,” Taff recommends. “If they do know, meet the need they asked for if you can. And if you can’t meet it, don’t feel bad. You have to keep and respect your own boundaries too.”

On the other hand, try not to brush off their feelings. Aim to validate them instead. “Acknowledge that their anxiety is important to them, even if it seems unimportant or irrational to you,” she says. “Even if you don’t understand your friend’s anxious point of view, they are struggling—and they need to know you understand the anxiety they are feeling.”

But should you offer any kind of advice? That depends. Taff suggests asking your friend if they would like advice before you offer it. “When offering advice to someone struggling with anxiety, you can sometimes come off as condescending and judgmental,” she says. “Your friend may then feel attacked and ashamed, which will only make the anxiety worse. Offering unwanted advice often invalidates their experience.”

To help understand what your friend or family member might need, Taff points to a theory in psychology called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. The theory describes how to meet someone’s needs and in what order.

“Essentially, you work from the bottom up, so meet the physiological needs first, then the safety needs, and so on and so forth,” Taff adds. In order, the needs go from psychological, to safety, to love and belonging, to esteem and finally, self-actualization. 

Starting the Conversation

Now, all of the information above is incredibly useful—but what if you’re not so sure on how to start this whole conversation? Taff says, first and foremost, show your friend that you care. This can be through a small gift, a hug, validation of their feelings, anything.

Taff also recommends starting with what she calls an “I” statement—any statement that begins with the word “I.” “When using an ‘I’ statement, it tells the other person how you feel about them,” she says. “When a statement begins with ‘you,’ it can make the other person feel accused or cause them to get defensive. An ‘I’ statement allows you to assertively communicate your concern, without putting too much emphasis on the other person.”

A few examples Taff gives are:

  • “I really want to help you, but I just don’t know how. Would you ever want to look into seeing a counselor?”
  • “I’ve noticed that this topic seems to really bother you. Are you experiencing any anxiety about it?

She also strongly recommends that you check your own anxiety before you enter into a discussion with a friend. “Anxious people can almost ‘feed off’ of each other,” Taff notes. “Do some deep breathing or mindfulness exercises before talking with your friend if you are beginning to feel anxious about the conversation.”

Warning Signs for Anxiety

Let’s say your friend might be having severe anxiety issues to the point that you’re worried about their well-being. There are warning signs to watch for:

  • Do they seem sad?
  • Are they more irritable than normal?
  • Are they crying out of nowhere?
  • Are they pulling away more than normal?
  • Are they isolating when they normally would not be isolating?
  • Have they begun to start joking about suicide or death, when they never joked about it before?
  • Some common phrases may be:
    • “I just wish I wasn’t here anymore.”
    • “I wish I could just die.”
    • “Nobody wants me here anyway.”

In this instance, you might suggest seeing a professional. Now, we know what you’re thinking: How do I do that without sounding like I’m crossing a line? First, Taff suggests mentioning your own anxiety and mental health journey. “People who feel connected and known are more likely to open up,” she adds.

And remember those “I” statements? Those still apply here. Tell them, “I’m really concerned for you and the amount of anxiety that you are experiencing. Have you ever considered talking to a professional counselor about it?”

Taff does add that, unfortunately, therapy still has a stigma. “Depending on who you are talking to, you may still feel like you are crossing a line,” she says. “Regardless, if you feel like your friend is having dangerous thoughts, it is very important that you recommend professional help even if you feel like a line might be crossed.”

Need some more resources to help you out with this type of conversation? Taff recommends reaching out to the group she works with, Taylor Counseling Group, which has counselors across the Metroplex.

She also loves The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety and The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Depression. There are also family support groups are offered by the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) and Grace Alliance.

RELATED: How to help a friend dealing with postpartum depression

This article was originally published in December 2020.

Image: iStock