It can be a challenge to help a family member deal with anxiety. We worry about saying or doing the wrong thing. We worry about making it worse. Here are five proven ways to help a family member with anxiety.
Pay attention to their boundaries
It will be vital for you to identify any boundaries that they may be trying to set with you. For example, if you offer advice on how to solve a problem and they tell you to stay out of it, then do just that Listen. Your involvement might increase their anxiety, and increase their stress. If they ask to be left alone for a few minutes while they calm down, then do just that. Insisting on staying with them could further increase – their anxiety and impair their ability to calm their nervous system.
It’s vital to be patient, and listen to what they are trying to communicate. Allow them to communicate at a pace and in a manner that is comfortable for them. Rushing things can increase their anxiety and even trigger a full-blown panic attack.
Encourage them to practice self-care, such as mindfulness meditations, by using the buddy system. This ensures that they are4 conscious of being held accountable for their goals at the same time as they are supported in their endeavors. Alternatively, there is a grounding exercise you can practice together. I’ve linked a document that highlights three different ones you can try out with them: TherapistAid worksheet
Do not tell them to “calm down”
If you notice a loved one going through a particularly stressful and anxious moment, the last thing they are going to want to hear is: “just calm down, you’re freaking out about nothing”. Rationally, they might know this, but the high levels of cortisol engendered by anxiety momentarily block access to the rational part of their brain which provides a realistic perspective, for example, that arriving ten minutes late for a meeting is not a major disaster. Reassurances such as “it’s not a big deal” or “just get over it” are not only ineffective, they are positively damaging since they reinforce a sense of isolation and skepticism about your understanding and empathy. Far better is an explicit recognition of the stress the person is feeling and offers of practical help to cope with it, such as “I can see that this is really stressing you out, can I get you water/paper bag/ food/blanket…?”.
Stay vigilant and take care of yourself too
It is important to remember that your goal in all of this is to help your loved one- not “cure” them of their anxiety. Even the most well-intentioned people might find themselves taking on too much responsibility (which is a symptom of anxiety by the way)- so make sure that you’re not falling into the anxiety trap.
Loving Someone with Anxiety: Understanding and Helping Your Partner by Kate N. Thieda – book
Anxiety for Beginners by Eleanor Morgan – book
If you or someone you know may be suffering from anxiety, please call to book your first session or start with a free 15-minute phone consultation.
I am a passionate and driven therapist who is committed to helping you achieve your mental health goals. My goal is to provide you with a safe space that will encourage you to explore your struggles, gain insight, challenge assumptions and beliefs about yourself, and appreciate your successes. As a therapist, I specialize in working with individuals facing issues related to anxiety, depression, trauma, stressful life changes, communication, relationships, and social justice.