Author: Sophie Phoon
Anxiety is the most common mental health issue in the world. One in four Australians will experience anxiety at some stage of their life, and it is vitally important to have a strong support network around when this happens. If you want to support a friend or loved one in dealing with their anxiety, here are 9 tips to get you started.
1. Be there for them
Never underestimate the power of just being there for someone. Often what a person needs is someone to just listen to them, patiently and without judgement. Don’t feel like you have to fix their issues for them, most of the time you can’t anyway. Your presence is good enough.
2. Validate their experience
If they open up to you about their issues, don’t tell them that their anxiety is stupid or unfounded. Instead, make them feel heard and understood. Acknowledge that what they are dealing with is not simple or easy. Please don’t tell them they should just get over it; you wouldn’t say that to someone with a broken arm, so don’t say it to someone with anxiety.
3. Encourage them to get help
If your friend hasn’t yet opened up about their anxiety, they might not even know what it is. Signs of mental illness are often attributed to things like hormones or a stressful life event or just a nervous personality. Taking the first step and having the conversation with them about their mental health might encourage them to seek help. If they are particularly against going to therapy, you could offer to get a check-up together with the GP. This is a less threatening way for them to take that first step towards getting help.
4. Be their activity partner
Some anxiety-relieving activities like working out or taking a yoga class may be
made a whole lot easier by having a friend to go with. Anxiety sufferers often find it difficult just to get out of bed in the mornings. Having an activity partner will make them think twice about bailing on plans. As well as that, it can also help for socially anxious people to have a friendly face in the class.
5. Be a voice of reason
Anxiety sufferers have a tendency for ‘avoidance behaviour’. When an activity or task causes anxiety, the sufferer will tend to avoid that task and over time it will build up even more in their heads until the idea of doing that task is unbearable. A common example is making a simple phone call – easy enough for most of us, but for those suffering from social anxiety it can be incredibly stressful. In these situations, it can be really beneficial to break the task down into steps and then encourage them to just take that first step, rather than the whole task all at once.
6. Don’t make them feel judged
The fear of being judged can be as debilitating as the anxiety itself. Those with clinical anxiety might even feel like they are going crazy. In these moments, it is important that they know that what they are experiencing is not uncommon. In fact, some of the thoughts that anxiety sufferers have are even shared with those who don’t have anxiety, like the fear of being judged or rejected by others. It might help for them to know that they are not alone in their feelings.
7. Don’t be a crutch
A common symptom of anxiety is constantly asking for reassurance: e.g. “You won’t ever leave me, will you?” or “Are you sure you’re not angry with me?” While it may be tempting to reassure your loved ones that you love them and won’t leave them, it is important not to constantly give into these behaviours, as doing so can actually feed anxiety rather than reduce it. In these cases, it might be best to work with a mental health professional to find the best course of action.
8. Celebrate their successes
When they confront a fear and overcome it, celebrate their win! Tell them how proud you are of them for conquering their anxieties. Go and do something fun to celebrate even the smallest successes, because sometimes they are the biggest battles.
9. Look after yourself
Supporting someone with anxiety can be draining; make sure you take care of yourself. Set some clear boundaries, don’t be available every hour of every day, and make sure you get some social interaction outside of supporting your friend. If you feel overwhelmed, it might be worth speaking with a mental health professional.
You don’t have to do everything on this list. Picking one or two items is a great start and will likely be a big help to the person you want to support. If you’re not sure which ones to choose, there’s nothing wrong with showing this list to your friend and asking them which tips would help them best.
Sophie is a freelance writer with a passion for real-life stories and mental health. She has worked with various organisations and publications including Australian parenting magazine, Offspring. In her spare time, she cooks for her family and friends, and writes about it on her food blog, Ever Peckish.