Breakthrough Counselling

How to support someone who suffers from anxiety

Living in the shadow of the pandemic is hard for all of us, but it’s especially challenging for people with anxiety. If you know someone who’s struggling with anxiety at the moment, you might be wondering how you can help. Perhaps the person you’re concerned about is acting differently, or has become withdrawn. You might be desperate to support them, but you’re unsure what to say or do.

As a counsellor I understand the impact anxiety can have on sufferers, and also their family and friends. I’d like you to know there are some steps you can take to give your loved one the very best support.

What’s the difference between anxiety and stress?

So you can best help someone with anxiety, it’s a good idea to know the difference between anxiety and stress. From the outside they might appear similar. But while stress is a reaction to challenging events, anxiety can persist whether or not things are difficult.

While the advice below will be useful whether your loved one is suffering from anxiety or stress, keep in mind that anxiety might become worse during difficult times, and someone with anxiety can’t recover in the way someone who is stressed might.

People who suffer from anxiety can’t ‘snap out’ of their fears straightaway, just as someone with a physical illness or injury can’t choose to get better.

For this reason, it’s important to try and be patient when supporting someone with anxiety. Here are some more simple things you can do to help your friend or family member:

Be reliable

For someone who has anxiety, knowing there is a person they can depend on can be very comforting – especially in these uncertain times. Anxiety could lead your friend or family member to feel isolated, so let them know you will always be around and you’re always just a phone call away.

Listen to what they have to say

You don’t have to understand exactly what your loved one is going through, but being willing to listen to them shows you care. Resist the urge to chime in with advice, but try to let them talk without judging them.

It can be difficult to open up and be vulnerable if you have anxiety. So knowing there is someone who will hear what you have to say without this affecting the relationship means a lot.

Ask how you can help

Everyone is different, and what might be helpful for one person might not be helpful for others. Ask your loved one what they need – what makes them feel better. They might not be able to explain exactly how you can help right away, but giving them the option to think about this will be very beneficial, because it can help them take control of their illness.

Give them the option to try new things…

Doing something new – like going for a walk, taking an online class or trying a new hobby – can be great for anxiety because it helps the sufferer focus on the present moment, rather than being swept up in the thoughts and fears crowding their mind. Offer to accompany your loved one, and the new activity could become something you enjoy doing together.

…But don’t pressure them

Change – even positive change – can be daunting for anyone, and more so for people with anxiety. Avoiding challenging situations can often be a symptom of anxiety, too; one that makes the anxiety worse in the long run.

But pushing your loved one into doing something they don’t want to do can also exacerbate their anxiety. Remember that it’s important to be patient. Try not to pressure them to do more than they feel comfortable with; just let them know you are there for them if they do choose to do something different.

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Be forgiving

Sometimes anxiety causes people to act in challenging ways. They might become irritable, cancel plans at the last minute or become withdrawn. It’s difficult not to take these things personally, but your loved one isn’t acting this way to hurt you; they’re acting this way because their body and mind are trapped in ‘fight or flight mode’ and they’re trying to protect themselves. Try to be forgiving if you can.

Learn about your friend or family member’s illness

It’s a good idea to learn the facts about anxiety, so you can understand better how it affects your friend or family member. There are lots of online resources about the different kinds of anxiety (I’ve listed some at the end of this post). The charity Mind also has a good blog where people post about their personal experiences with the illness.

Encourage them to seek help if they need it

If your friend or family member’s anxiety is having a big impact on their life, it’s a good idea to suggest they seek professional help, either through their GP or by finding a trained therapist. You could offer to help them with practicalities like making the appointment, and going with them to the waiting room. You might want to suggest helping them plan what they’d like to talk about, too.

Look after your own needs

It can be very challenging to support a loved one with anxiety, so take measures to look after your own wellbeing, too. It can be helpful to share your supportive role with others who are able to help, so the responsibility isn’t yours alone.

If you do feel overwhelmed, you can talk to someone you trust or a trained counsellor. There are also charities and organisations that have resources for friends and families affected by anxiety, and I’ve listed some at the end of this post. 

Helping someone who is having a panic attack

Some people with anxiety also experience panic attacks. A panic attack is a sudden and intense response to danger when there is no danger present. It can happen unexpectedly and although they’re not harmful, they can feel very frightening.

  • It’s very upsetting to see someone you care about having a panic attack, but the best thing you can do for them is to stay calm.
  • Gently let them know that you think they’re having a panic attack.
  • Reassure them that they are safe, and you will stay with them. You can also reassure them that the attack will pass (they usually last 5-20 minutes, although it may feel longer for the person having the attack.)
  • Encourage them to try and breathe slowly and deeply. Many people find it helpful to breathe slowly in and out to a count of five. The charity Mind suggests encouraging them to watch you slowly move your arm up and down. (It’s no longer recommended that someone having a panic attack breathes into a paper bag.)
  • If they want you to, stay with them after the attack. Once the attack itself has ended, the person may feel upset and jittery for a while.

I hope you’ve found this article helpful, and I wish you and your loved one all the best for the future. If you or your loved one would like to talk to a trained therapist, you’re welcome to get in touch with me. I’m a registered person-centered counsellor and hypnotherapist. I provide both telephone counselling and online counselling via Skype to people across the UK.

Useful links and helplines

Mind – the national mental health charity has information about anxiety, including a page dedicated to the friends and family of anxiety sufferers. The charity’s website also has a blog written by people affected by mental health issues.

Anxiety UK – the charity has a free guide for people who are supporting someone with anxiety. There’s also a helpline for people affected by anxiety: 03444 775 774 (Monday to Friday, 9.30am to 5.30pm)

The National Counselling Society (NCS) – the professional association for counsellors website has a national directory of qualified therapists, searchable by area.

SANE – a charity that provides emotional support and guidance for people affected by mental illness, their families and carers. SANE has a helpline: 0300 304 7000 (daily, 4.30pm to 10.30pm)

The NHS website – has information on anxiety, including causes and symptoms. It also has practical advice on how to manage anxiety symptoms and panic attacks, and where to seek help and support.

YoungMinds – this charity campaigns for the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people. Their website has information and advice for parents and carers of children with anxiety. They also have a parent’s helpline: 0808 802 5544