What’s not helpful: “Calm down” and “It’s not a big deal.” What is: “I have confidence that you can handle this situation.” (Photo: Offset/Cavan Images)
For people who don’t have anxiety, it can be difficult to understand what’s going on in the minds of those who do — which also makes it hard to know what to say that will actually be comforting.
“It’s important for friends and family to know when a person is experiencing anxiety so they can encourage the individual to face their fears,” Amy Przeworski, PhD, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at Case Western Reserve University, tells Yahoo Health. “Receiving support and encouraging words from family and friends may help to empower a person who is struggling to face their fears.”
Have loved ones with anxiety? The experts shared what to say to help them feel supported:
It’s important to show sympathy for their anxiety, even if you don’t relate to their experience. Instead of saying, “You must be so anxious right now,” which focuses on the fear itself, flip the sentence to support them through their anxiety trigger, Przeworski suggests.
The fear during a moment of high anxiety is very real. People may feel like they are in a life-threatening situation even if there is no direct threat there, explains Przeworski. Telling them they are not alone in their fear can help them overcome their anxiety naturally.
Anxious people need the validation that you are there for them during high anxiety, Przeworski says. Telling them to calm down, or that the situation is not a big deal, will make them feel dismissed, nor will it minimize the intensity of the moment. Saying that you have confidence in them will provide the backing they need to power through extreme stress.
It’s important for people with anxiety to remain in the anxiety-provoking situation, Przeworski explains. Their bodies will naturally calm down when you encourage them to face the fear and control it.
When someone is experiencing anxiety, it is best to encourage them to focus on the situation and not inward at how they are feeling. Encourage them to power on, says Anne Marie Albano, PhD, ABPP, associate professor of clinical psychology in psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center. Breathing gives them something to focus on instead of their emotions.
Panic attacks may feel endless, but in reality they last roughly 10 minutes and then resolve. It’s important to remind people with anxiety that they can make it through, says Sarah Fader, the founder and CEO of Stigma Fighters, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping people who live with mental illnesses.
In cognitive behavioral therapy, the first steps are to identify the anxiety-inducing situation and to become aware of the thoughts and emotions it triggers. Asking this question can help someone dealing with anxiety to recognize their triggers and realize that their worst fears are likely irrational, Albano says.
The idea is to coach the individual to think realistically and not catastrophically, Albano says. This statement helps them think through what is in their power to do and take action on, rather than feel helpless.
This may require some understanding or experience with cognitive behavioral therapy. This treatment style teaches that avoiding anxiety usually solidifies it. CBT patients develop skills to manage their anxiety in real-life situations that they will be able to walk you through, Albano says.