Dealing with other people’s anxiety.

“How do I help my friend with anxiety?” “My partner has anxiety and it’s stressing me out.” “What do I do when my sister is having a panic attack?” “I can’t stand it when my friend gets that way.”

These are just a few of the things I’ve heard when discussing anxiety with clients and acquaintances.  Anxiety is certainly hard for the people who experience it, and it can also be hard for the people who witness it, absorb it, or care about those who have it.  Whatever your connection, it’s usually not fun.

So what do you do when someone you care about has anxiety, and you want to help, or it’s starting to affect you, too?

If you’re feeling worried:  

Are you feeling worried because your friend is suffering, or are you feeling worried because you feel helpless?  If your loved one is having anxiety, there are some things you can do that might help take it down a few notches.

In the moment:

 Help the person focus on the present by asking them to scan the room from left to right, and find something that is each red, blue, shiny, and large.  This is a quick and simple technique that might sound silly, but is really effective when we’re feeling panicky, anxious, or nervous.

Tip:  Ask if you can give them a 20 second hug (at minimum).  Physical contact can help release oxytocin.  Oxytocin directly combats the stress hormone cortisol, which is usually present when we have high anxiety.

Ahead of time:

Tip:  Plan ahead.  If you know you and your friend are going to do something that might exacerbate their anxiety, prepare ahead of time.  Ask them what they might need for support from you.  Maybe they want to sit in a seat by the door, know where the exits are, or step outside to get away from the crowd every 30 minutes.  Just knowing you have their back, and that they have options, can decrease the intensity of anxiety.  Plus, if you plan ahead, it reduces the stress of having to think on your feet.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed:  

If you start to feel overwhelmed when your loved one is experiencing anxiety, stop and take a few breaths.  This is their anxiety.  You can’t own it or fix it for them.  You can soothe yourself, though, so you can be a calm support for them.

Tip:  Do some belly breathing or woosh breathing.  Belly breathing is when you place your hand on your stomach and take at least five deep, slow breaths, ensuring your belly is inflating with each inhale, and deflating with each exhale.  Woosh breathing is when you breath while pursing your lips to make a wooshing/sighing sound when you exhale through your mouth.  Breath in for four seconds, hold it for six seconds, and exhale with a whoosh for eight seconds.  A goal for each of these is to be exhaling longer than you inhale.

These breathing techniques can be helpful for your loved one with anxiety as well.  Once you’ve practiced, show them how to do it, too.

If you’re feeling resentful:

Maybe your loved one’s anxiety frequently interrupts your plans, maybe their mood changes set you on edge, or maybe it feels like they have unreasonable expectations of you.  Regardless of the prompter, resentment is toxic, and takes a big toll on relationships.  If you’re starting to feel resentful toward your loved one because of how you experience their anxiety, consider the following tip.

Tip:  Find the good.  Remember that the person isn’t doing this on purpose, and while you might find their anxiety difficult to interact with, there are plenty of things about them, and your relationship with them, that you appreciate and value.  Take a survey of those things, and then actually tell the person two or three of them.  Battle resentment with demonstrations of appreciation.

If you’re feeling frustrated or angry:

If you’re feeling frustrated or angry, it is probably because you don’t know how to help, or because you have tried to help and it feels like nothing works.  Sometimes this can lead to our stealthy friend, shame, which is like a physical attack on our nervous systems.  One effective way we soothe shame is through compassion/self-compassion.

Tip:  Recognize you’re feeling frustrated or angry and take a breath.  Get curious with yourself and with your friend.  Ask yourself if you can act with compassion.  If you don’t feel like you can act with compassion in the moment, ask yourself what you would need to be able to do so.  

If you’re feeling like you can act with compassion, thank yourself, and let the parts of you that are feeling ashamed or angry know that you hear them and understand that the situation is really hard (yes, I’m asking you to talk to yourself!).  Let your friend know that you can see they’re struggling or suffering.  Ask them how you can be there for them, and let them know you understand why the situation is hard.  Example:  “It looks like you’re feeling really anxious.  That makes sense because there are a lot more people at this party than we expected.  Is there something I can do that might help help you feel more safe/relaxed?”

Of course, there are many other ways you might feel about your loved one’s struggle with anxiety, these are just a few of the ones I’ve heard most frequently.  

If you’re dealing with your own, or someone else’s, anxiety, and would like to learn more tips and strategies to overcome the beast, get in touch with me today.

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