It’s hard to be with a loved one when they’re anxious. You just want them to feel better, but it seems like nothing you say or do helps. Before you know it, you’re starting to feel anxious yourself!
I’ve been there, and I’ve worked with many clients who have been there, too. So I want to share what I’ve learned with you.
Please bear in mind: These phrases aren’t magic! They won’t make the person suddenly stop being anxious.
What these tips will do is increase the likelihood that an anxious person will feel supported by you. They’ll also help you feel more confident, which in itself is helpful for an anxious person.
So let’s get into it!
Instead of saying: “It’s going to be okay.”
Try: “You’re really _______________________.” (overwhelmed, sad, etc.)
Why it works
Even though “it’s going to be okay” may be true, it doesn’t feel like it to an anxious person. Therefore, it can come across as invalidating, rather than comforting.
Reflecting how you think they are feeling will help the other person feel understood.
They may correct you and say something like, “I’m not overwhelmed, just scared.” Either way, what will come across is that you’re trying to understand where they’re coming from, which will make them feel cared about.
#2 CRY IT OUT
Instead of saying: “Don’t cry.”
Try: “Cry as much as you want.”
Why it works
When someone is told not to cry, it can have the effect of making them feel bad or ashamed about crying, which can actually make them cry more.
So if you want someone to stop crying, first of all, acknowledge that that’s about your discomfort with their display of emotions, not about what is best for the other person.
Crying is actually really good for you in that it releases stress hormones.
So when you tell someone to cry more, it releases any feelings of shame they have about crying, and often helps them feel better more quickly. Cool, huh?
#3 DEEP BREATHS
Instead of saying: “Calm down.”
Try: “Let’s take a breath together.” Then inhale SLOWLY through your nose and exhale SLOWLY through your nose or mouth.
Why it works
Being around someone with anxiety is anxiety-provoking!
If you both take a slow breath together, it really decreases the tension in the room.
I know deep breathing is a cliche, but it really works. The oxygen helps slow down the body’s physiological reactions to anxiety (increased heart rate, ragged breathing, etc.)
Instead of saying: “You’re STILL worrying about this?”
Try: “Want to go for a walk?”
People with anxiety don’t want to have it! Often, they just don’t know how to stop worrying. Or they’ve tried, but nothing is working.
When a loved one is really stuck in a thought loop, doing something can put them in a different mindset, especially if it is something physical that releases endorphins.
If they aren’t a big walker, ask if they want to watch a funny YouTube video you saw, or get ice cream… anything to help them stop thinking for a few seconds.
#5 SILENT SUPPORTER
Instead of: *Leaving the room*
Try: “Can I just sit with you?”
Leaving the person alone may make it seem like you don’t care how they’re feeling.
If your loved one says yes to you sitting with them, stay present (OFF your phone), and don’t say much. Let them vent if they need to, or just sit quietly.
This will probably feel super awkward. How often do we just sit in silence with someone? But stick it out.
Often, just knowing a loved one is there for you is more important than what they actually say.
WHAT IF NONE OF THESE WORK?
Everyone is different. Some people prefer space when they’re anxious. Some find taking deep breaths condescending.
So if nothing seems to help, ask the person directly what would help them.
Don’t ask them what they need while they are still anxious. They probably won’t know, and the question may piss them off.
Instead, ask your loved one after they are no longer anxious how they’d prefer to be comforted.
If they still don’t know even when they’re calm, throw out some options. “Should I get the soft blanket?” “Should I rub your back?” “Should I put on Cat Stevens?”
Also, remember, there are no miracle cures. Sometimes your loved one is going to be anxious, and there will be nothing you can do but ride it out with them. Just having you in their life probably helps more than you even know.
What helps your anxious friends and family? Let me know in the comments below.
Rebecca is a licensed therapist who practices telehealth counseling in Illinois. Rebecca empowers therapy clients to cope with anxiety, depression, self-esteem, and relationship problems using their natural strengths and inner wisdom.
To learn more about becoming a therapy client, contact me.