“Just don’t think about it” is probably one of the worst things you can tell someone who suffers from anxiety. No, I can’t just stop thinking about it––my mind won’t let me! There are certain things people who don’t suffer with anxiety do that irritate people who experience anxiety. However, it’s difficult to know how to help a loved one through their anxiety if you’ve never experienced it yourself. Here are some strategies that will hopefully allow you to understand how to help your loved one as they battle anxiety.
Distract them from their thoughts
Anxiety is horrible because negative thoughts constantly bombard your mind–-I could have done better. What if I never lived? Do my friends really care about me? I’m going to fail that midterm. However, we sometimes can’t control that because our brains don’t function properly. Anxiety sufferers get stuck in a negative feedback loop of overthinking––we constantly focus on a thought and then get more anxious because we can’t stop thinking about it. Basically, our minds run on a hamster wheel.
Distracting someone from their anxious thoughts allows them to decompress and focus on something else instead of staying anxious. Eventually, the thought may leave their mind, at least for a while.
Just be with them
Loneliness is the silent killer of anxiety suffers because it’s difficult to break the negative thought cycle when you’re alone and emotions often intensify in moments of solitude. Staying by someone’s side allows them to know they’re not dealing with their pain alone and have someone who can support them if their anxiety becomes uncontrollable. In addition, the simple presence of a friend can often help them relax. Some people don’t even want to talk when they’re feeling anxious, myself included. We’re just too sad to even utter a simple “I need help.” Don’t even feel pressured to say anything––your presence alone can comfort them.
Tell them to breathe and relax
Anxiety causes fear, panic, tension, shortness of breath, dizziness, and sometimes heart palpitations. People often get tense and forget to breathe during anxiety attacks, so it’s important to remind them to breathe deeply and relax their muscles. Here are a couple different breathing techniques you can try. Honestly, breathing can help a lot of different things––stress, emotional unrest, and more.
Give them space if they need it
Although it’s hard to see friends suffer, sometimes they just want to be left alone. I’ll sometimes call friends when I’m anxious, but I sometimes need space to either process what I’m feeling or cry hard before I feel brave enough to talk to my friends.
Anxiety imprisons people with false lies because it activates the flight or fight system, which results in fear and intensifies negative thoughts. Reminding someone they’re valuable and loved goes a long way and can significantly brighten their spirits.
Do one of their favorite activities
Doing fun things is definitely the best distraction from emotional turmoil. I remember a couple different times after I had a panic attack, when my friends took me to coffee, froyo, or even on just a hike. Being with them and doing something I enjoyed helped me forget what even made me anxious in the first place.
Ask if there’s any way you can help
Anxiety sufferers are often too ashamed to ask for help because of the negative stigma mental illnesses come with. However, asking your loved one how you can help shows them you care and don’t think they’re insane. Encourage them to call you anytime they experience a panic attack and remind them that you’ll always be there if you’re available.
Don’t invalidate their emotions
It doesn’t matter if you think someone’s being irrational––they feel a specific way for one reason or another and they’ll ignore anyone who tells them their emotions are completely wrong. Instead, try something a bit more passive like “I get you’re worried about this, but maybe you’re a little too worried” or ask them about how they feel. Anxiety also often fluctuates emotions and because stress often causes anxiety, other emotions arise––sadness, irritation, lack of control, etc;
Note what stresses them out and check in on them during these moments
My closest friends and family members know my anxiety shoots through the roof when I have huge projects and exams or a heavy work week. As a result, I’ve asked a couple friends to check up on me when I have tons of assignments because I know I’ll probably go insane.
Don’t just tell them “Trust God for peace”
This is by far the most irritating thing someone has told me when I had an anxiety attack. Yes, God gives peace, but that’s not what we need to hear right in that given moment when our minds run rampant with negative thoughts. We just need to get through the attack and some TLC from best friends. I think of Job’s friends when they told him that God was punishing him for his lack of faith instead of supporting him. Yes, they were right, but they weren’t being good friends at the time. Remind your loved one about God’s peace when they’re not having an anxiety attack.
Exercise improves mood because it releases feel-good endorphins, distracts your mind from negative thoughts, builds confidence, provides opportunities for interaction, and functions as a healthy coping mechanism. Invite your loved one on a run, a hike, or for a swim session, During these times, you can also talk to them and ask them about their feelings as well as ways you can help them through tough times. If they skip one day, call them and make sure everything’s okay. I personally love swimming and will swim for 5-8 hours a week. However, not everyone enjoys swimming, soit’s best to find an activity you both enjoy.