Empathy Over Empty Words: Navigating Anxiety With Care
Anxiety is a common mental health condition that affects millions of people worldwide. It's estimated that one third of Americans will experience anxiety in their lifetime; this means that you've most likely had contact with someone who was struggling. While those who suffer from anxiety may find solace in the support of their loved ones, others may find that their family or friends "just don't get it". It's important to be mindful of the words and actions we use when trying to help. In this blog post, we'll explore what not to say to someone who has anxiety and offer valuable tips on how to be genuinely supportive and validating.
What Not to Say
Telling someone with anxiety to "just relax" oversimplifies their struggle. Anxiety is not a choice and not something that can be turned on or off at will. In fact, for many individuals with anxiety, this statement can increase feelings of guilt and frustration. Instead, try offering a calming presence and ask if there's anything you can do to help them feel more at ease. Sometimes just offering to listen without judgment can be a game-changer for someone who is feeling anxious.
"It's all in your head."
While anxiety may originate in the mind, it's a very real and distressing experience for those who suffer from it. Dismissing their feelings as imaginary can perpetuate even more negative thoughts and feelings. Rumination can easily take hold and create a false narrative that 'something is wrong with them'. Instead, validate their emotions by saying something like, "I can see that you're really struggling right now. How can I support you?"
Minimizing the significance of their anxiety can make them feel ashamed and isolated. It's crucial to remember that anxiety is an emotional response to perceived threats, and it's not something they can always control. Offer empathy and let them express their feelings without judgment. An example of a nonjudgmental conversation starter would look like this: "I understand that you may be feeling overwhelmed, would you feel comfortable enough to talk about it?"
"Why are you anxious? There's nothing to worry about."
Anxiety often doesn't have a rational basis, and attempting to rationalize their fears may only increase their anxiety. Dismissing someone when they are feeling anxious may prevent them from voicing any future anxieties. Instead, offer your support and encourage them to seek professional help if they haven't already. If they don't know where to begin, offer to assist them in finding resources.
"I know exactly how you feel."
While empathy is crucial, claiming to understand their experience completely can come across as insincere. The way that each person experiences anxiety is unique and it is essential to acknowledge that you may not fully comprehend the way they feel. A better alternative is to say "I don't know exactly how you feel, but in some ways I can relate to what you are saying". It shows that you are not an expert on how they are feeling, but rather you are taking from your own lived experience to meet them with empathy. Another idea is to ask open-ended questions like, "Can you help me understand what you're going through?"
How to Be Supportive
Listen without judgment.
One of the most powerful ways to support someone with anxiety is to be an empathetic listener. Allow them to express their thoughts and feelings without interruption or criticism. Sometimes, simply having a non-judgmental presence can provide immense comfort.
Offer your presence.
Sometimes, words are not necessary. Just being there for your loved one can make a world of difference. Sit with them, hold their hand, or offer a reassuring hug. Your physical presence can convey understanding and support when words fall short.
Help them seek professional help.
If their anxiety is severely impacting their life, suggest seeking professional assistance. Offer to assist in finding a therapist, counselor, or psychiatrist and even accompany them to appointments if they're comfortable with it.
Supporting someone with anxiety can be emotionally challenging, so it's essential to take care of yourself too. Ensure you have your own support network and resources to lean on when needed.
Recovery from anxiety can be a slow and ongoing process. Be patient and understanding, and avoid pressuring them to "get better" quickly. Celebrate their small victories and progress.
Educate yourself about anxiety.
Take the time to educate yourself about anxiety disorders and their various forms. Understanding the condition better will enable you to provide more effective support and empathy.
Coping with anxiety can be an laborious journey, but having a supportive network of friends and family can make all the difference. Remember that what you say and do can profoundly impact someone dealing with anxiety. Avoiding dismissive or hurtful comments and instead offering empathy, presence, and encouragement can provide vital support for their path to recovery. By being mindful of our words and actions, we can contribute to a more compassionate and understanding world for those living with anxiety.