Helping a loved one with anxiety
How to help someone with anxiety
It’s hard, I know. You love them so much, but they’re wound up, distant, and distracted. It’s hard talk with them because they keep losing focus. And it feels like their anxiety is starting to spill over onto you. You wish that you could help them slow their thoughts down, but you don’t know where to start.
First, I want you to recognize that their anxiety theirs, not yours. You’re not responsible for it, you didn’t create it, and you don’t have to cure it. Still, there are some useful tools to support a loved one struggling with anxiety.
Find some way to “still’ your body. Our brains evolved to respond to each other using something called “mirror neurons.” Have you ever been in a conversation with someone and use the exact same word they used a moment ago? Raised your hand at the same time someone else did? Mirror Neurons are why seeing a baby giggle makes you laugh. When you see a movie character crying in a drama, you feel sad. It’s also why when you’re around someone acting anxious, it makes you feel more anxious. This is a helpful evolutionary trait, but we have to recognize how we are affected. When crisis responders are interacting with someone in distress, they’re taught to mirror the emotion they want to evoke. So, if someone is really “amped up,” we want to slow down, use a calm and soft voice. Sitting down and folding your hands is one simple way of doing this. Subconsciously, our loved one’s brain will want to mirror our own behavior. This can be useful in helping them regulate their over-anxious mind. If it’s appropriate (and with consent) a hand on their leg or arm can also be grounding.
This one is best discussed with your loved one ahead of time. Find something with some sort of texture. This could be literally anything. A key, watch, cell phone case, a hat…whatever. Next see if you can both focus your mind entirely on the texture of that item. Hold it in your hand. Run your fingers over it. Feel every dip, rise, valley, and corner of that item. Imagine your mind “zooming in” on the facets of that thing. Put all of your attention on your sense of touch. Practice this for 3-5 minutes together and notice if it slows things down for you and your loved one.
Listen in a particular way
People with anxiety struggle to slow down their thoughts. But talking about thoughts and feelings helps to restore function to the prefrontal cortex (which is executive function). This helps us to better regulate our feelings. We have two channels of listening, supportive and problem solving. Ask them which channel of listening they need right now. If it’s problem solving, feel free to brainstorm solutions, offer input, or search for answers together.
If it’s support, don’t offer solutions. Instead, do your best to reflect back to your loved one what they’re saying. Nod, summarize, and tell them what you heard. (Does this seem simplistic? Good. Then you’re on the right track). You can help them to name their feeling, if appropriate. “It sounds like you’re feeling really anxious. I can understand that.” Give them space to talk. Listen, name emotions, summarize, reflect. Occasionally you can check in with the other person to make sure that you’ve heard them correctly using these reflections. You’ll be surprised at how far this technique gets you. Trust me.
So listen to your loved one, secure in the knowledge that you’re helping them talk through their feelings and knowing that you do NOT have to fix anything for them. The act of talking, itself, is often enough.
The trick here is to NOT take on the other person’s anxiety. If you find yourself getting more anxious, check out this post on some ways to manage your own anxiety.
Try it out
As always, let me know what you think of these techniques, or if they work for you. I love talking mental health and am always grateful to hear from people working through the tough stuff. Truly! You’re not alone. Reach out to me if I can be a support to you.