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10 Ways To Help Someone in Their Most Anxiety-Provoking Situations

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Having anxiety can be an extremely isolating experience. Aside from the internal battle to just be “normal,” there is also the fact that it can be extremely hard to articulate to others how best they can help — if you even know how they can help in the first place. Anxiety can cause irrational, overwhelming thoughts. In the midst of anxiety, it can truly feel impossible to express to others what you need.

Here are 10 ways to help someone through the most anxiety-provoking situations they may face.

1. Believe and acknowledge that the situation truly feels impossible for them.

While it’s tempting to tell someone with anxiety that “everything will be fine” — to them, it won’t. And telling them everything will be fine in no way reduces how horrifyingly impossible it feels to them. Accept and acknowledge that it feels like they are living in a nightmare. Tell them that, even if you can’t personally understand how they feel, you do understand that they feel as terrified (or more) as they are saying. Don’t make the conversation around their anxiety big and intense. Make it casual and calm, because that will help them feel less “messed up” by having the anxiety they have.

2. Ask them what the ideal way is to get through the situation other than completely avoiding it.

For someone with anxiety, having to do something that is on their “never gonna happen” list is an overload of feelings. It can be hard to even think straight because there are just so many negative, fearful, highly emotional thoughts running through their head. So sit down and help them figure out the best way this bad thing could turn out. Maybe having to fly when you’re terrified of planes means the best scenario is sleeping or watching movies the whole time. By helping them figure out some best-case scenarios, you can also help them find ways to turn the situation into the least anxiety-provoking version it can be.

3. Find small ways to help, rather than trying to reduce their
anxiety about the entire situation.

It’s challenging not to want to take down the anxiety level of an entire situation for someone, like you’re covering them with a blanket — but that will almost never happen. Instead, see what are the small ways you can help. If you will both be at a large crowded gathering, offer to make an excuse why you need to leave early and reasons you both have to step away a few times. If they are terrified to drive to a new place, offer to sit down with maps and directions and spend time the day before going over everything as many times as possible.

4. Know what their anxiety will look like, and how to gauge their outward signs.

Some people are extremely good at masking their anxiety in public. However, that doesn’t alleviate the internal thoughts and feelings they are having — which are the true anxiety they are hiding. Ask them how you will know when they are overwhelmed or when they are feeling OK. Set up signals that only you two will know about that indicate how they are feeling. Maybe they can go to the bathroom and remove a piece of jewelry to show you they are coping OK. Maybe they can mention that their phone is dying when things are starting to overwhelm them. Maybe they can “remind” you that you have an appointment tomorrow to tell you they need you to get them away for a few minutes. This way, they can maintain their outward persona while communicating their feelings to you.

5. Encourage them without in any way minimizing the difficulty they are having.

Being positive can backfire when talking to someone about the anxiety they are feeling. It can feel to them as though you are simply brushing off the way they are feeling. Instead, find ways to be positive that are encouraging rather than superficial. You don’t have to have anxiety personally to be able to encourage and support someone who does. Before a big interview, remind them of a time they conquered something challenging, and how great they were. After a long party, tell them how impressed and proud you are of them for facing such a difficult situation. Being genuine is what really matters, not trying to say as many things as possible.

6. Help them prepare for the situation in whatever way they need or want.

Sometimes people with anxiety over-prepare for an upcoming event in an attempt to quell the feelings they are having and prevent all the negative possibilities that could occur. The problem is that there are an almost infinite number of “issues” their brain is telling them to prepare for. So offer to help, and ask them what they are struggling with preparing for. Maybe they can’t decide what to wear, so offer to let them lay out a few outfits and you will pick one. (It’s OK if you have no clue, they just need someone to make a final decision for them). If they are trying to complete a list of things to do before the family comes over, ask them the ones they are most worried about or what will take the longest and tell them they can mark those off the list because you are going to go take care of those right now (but make sure you do). Not only are you helping take away some of the things they feel they need to do, but you are showing through actions that you are there to support them, and that you are not judging how they are feeling.

7. Know what to do if the situation becomes too overwhelming or they have a
panic attack.

Sometimes, despite our best efforts, anxiety wins the mental tug of war at the worst possible time — right in the middle of the scenario we didn’t want to be in, to begin with. Make a plan for what you will do if that happens. If they know that a panic attack starts with them getting very quiet or playing with their phone to distract themselves, know where to go and what to do to remove them from the situation (or at least a safe way to cope with it if there is no way to actually remove the trigger). If they start tapping their foot when they are becoming completely overwhelmed, make a plan for how you will handle it. Even if it doesn’t happen, just having a plan will help decrease their anxiety about the situation.

8. Decide on some positive things to do after the whole situation is over.

Anxiety can be draining even when you’re not facing a situation you’ve avoided at all costs. But when you do have to deal with one of those situations, it can leave you mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted.. Having some good things to look forward to not only gives them a sort of light at the end of the tunnel but also helps recharge and reward the person after it is over. Maybe something as simple as not having to worry about dinner and getting to go to bed early will let them recharge. Maybe stocking up on their favorite snacks and watching movies when you get home will give them back some positive energy. Try getting them a new blanket or their favorite candy and surprising them with it afterward. It’s a nice way to show that you not only care, but that you knew the situation was going to be difficult, and you wanted to help them recover from it.

9. Help them figure out what parts of the situation will be the least

When faced with a “worst-case scenario,” someone with anxiety will be virtually unable to see anything positive in it. So help them figure out the least anxiety-provoking parts. Maybe the car ride over won’t be so bad, and you can even stop for coffee on the way there. Maybe cooking dinner for the family is easier than the small talk they will be forced to have all night. Find the things that are the least anxiety-provoking so you can maximize those. This will help serve as a small reminder that the entire situation will not be equally as horrifying, even if short bursts of it are only slightly less horrifying.

10. Eliminate whatever stressors you can, even if they seem unusual or unimportant.

Make the phone call, wash the towels, fill the gas tank, get your mom off on a tangent about your childhood so she’ll stop asking so many questions — anything. It doesn’t matter what you do; what matters is that you are doing something. For someone with anxiety, the number of stressors is uncountable. But eliminating even the smallest ones can have an impact — they just won’t ask because they probably feel silly for needing “help,” and may not even know what to ask for. So help without being asked, because it will mean the world.

If you struggle with anxiety, remember that the best way to express to those around you how they can help is to prepare them before it happens. Even when anxiety is an ever-present existence in your life, there will always be times when it fires off into another world of unbearableness. If someone you love struggles with anxiety, try to communicate with them when they are in a safe, calm place, and work together to figure out the ways to best help them in those times when their anxiety is off the charts. There is no “one-size-fits-all” answer to how anxiety manifests, or how to get through it. Everyone is different, and everyone’s anxiety is different. But by working together, you can conquer even the most challenging and dreaded situations, and get a little stronger each time.

Photo by Joseph Pearson on Unsplash

Originally published: August 22, 2020
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