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How to support someone living with anxiety

Learn the signs of anxiety, as well as what to say and what not to say


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March 31, 2017

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Everyone has felt nervous or concerned. You might have a big job interview or financial worries. It’s normal to feel anxious. But for some, anxiety is ever-present. It’s hovering around, even on the best days. If you are fortunate to not be plagued by these symptoms, chances are you know someone who is. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults.

Supporting someone who suffers from anxiety can be hard, but also very rewarding. Emily Bulthuis, MSW, LICSW, a therapist at Park Nicollet, offers tips about how to be an advocate.

What exactly is anxiety?

Anxiety is uncontrolled worry or fear. We often think of anxiety as an illness. But it’s important to remember that anxiety is a natural emotion. High levels of anxiety that begin to impact someone’s functioning are classified differently. They are considered anxiety-based disorders.

What are some common signs of anxiety?

Symptoms of anxiety can vary. It can be excessive worry that an individual finds hard to control. They also might experience:

  • Irritability
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Trouble relaxing
  • Restlessness
  • Muscle tension
  • Sleep difficulties

They can feel anxious about a range of different subjects, or one specific stressor. Other common indicators are irrational fears or phobias, panic attacks and digestive issues. Individuals may also resort to drug or alcohol use. These can be used as a means of self-medicating.

What are some tips for being a helpful and supportive ally?

When someone you care about is feeling anxious, it may be difficult to understand why they feel the way they do. But you don’t have to understand the way someone else feels to respect it. Focus on validation and hopeful comments. Try saying “I hear you’re feeling really frightened” or “I have faith you’ll get through this difficult period.” Avoid comments that call the person’s feelings into question. Don’t say, “Just stop worrying. It will all be fine.” or “I don’t understand why you’re so upset.” The Make It OK offers helpful language for speaking to people with mental illnesses in a respectful manner.

Inviting the person to engage in another activity with you is very helpful. Distraction is a great coping skill for people with anxiety. It’s also helpful to remember that simply spending time with someone who is feeling anxious can be a great comfort. It’s supportive even if the anxiety doesn’t go away.

It’s important to educate yourself about mental health issues. This is especially true if you have a loved one dealing with them. Doing this can help you understand your role in the treatment process. NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) is a great resource. They have free programs and support groups for those looking to better educate themselves on mental health.

Get more information about mental health:

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