It is understandable to be worried about a friend with anxiety and not know how to support them if you have never experienced it yourself. But there are some simple things you can do to help and ways to offer support without fearing that you will say or do the wrong thing.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is our body’s natural response to stress. It is a feeling of fear or apprehension about what is to come.
Everyone has feelings of anxiety at some point in their life. For example, feeling nervous or worried about sitting an exam, speaking in public, or attending a job interview. During times like these, feeling anxious can be perfectly normal and can help us perform under pressure.
However, chronic stress and anxiety are a really serious issue, so if feelings of anxiety are extreme, last for prolonged periods, or are interfering with daily life, it should not be ignored.
Anxiety may also be experienced as part of an anxiety disorder. Anxiety is the main symptom of several conditions, including panic disorder, phobias, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and social anxiety disorder.
How common is anxiety?
Back in 2013 there were 8.2 million cases of anxiety in the UK and the charity Mind say that in England, 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year, and 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem such as anxiety in any given week.
The most predominant mental health problems worldwide are depression and anxiety so your friend is not alone and it is probably more common than you thought.
How does anxiety affect people?
People can often experience a mix of physical, psychological, and behavioural symptoms when they feel anxious or stressed, and everyone’s experience is different.
According to Anxiety UK some of the most common physical symptoms are; increased heart rate or increased muscle tension, ‘jelly legs’ or tingling in the hands and feet, hyperventilation (breathing too heavily) or dizziness, difficulty in breathing or a tight band across the chest, needing to use the toilet more often, feeling sick, tension headaches, hot flushes or increased perspiration, dry mouth, shaking or palpitations, or choking sensations.
Some of the most common psychological symptoms include feeling that; they might lose control and/or go ‘mad’, they might die, they might have a heart attack/be sick/faint/have a brain tumour, people are looking at them and noticing their anxiety, things are speeding up/slowing down, they are detached from their environment and the people in it, they want to run away/escape from the situation, they are on edge and alert to everything around them.
The most common behavioural symptom involves avoiding the situation that makes them feel anxious. Although this can produce immediate relief, it is only a short-term solution. The anxiety often returns the next time they are in that situation – and avoiding it will only reinforce the feeling of danger.
On top of that, according to Healthline, people who experience stress and anxiety over prolonged periods of time may experience negative related health outcomes and are more likely to develop heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and may even develop depression and panic disorder.
Definitely not good news for our friend with anxiety, so let’s explore what you can do to help.
What you can do to support a friend with anxiety
- Be kind. Forcing your friend to deal with their problems, or things they are avoiding, will not help. Kindness and staying judgement free will likely be better received.
- Be patient. Take things at their pace so your friend feels supported rather than under more pressure.
- Don’t avoid it. You might suspect something is wrong but worry about starting a conversation about it in case things are awkward. But you are actually doing your friend a disservice by not acknowledging that you have noticed some changes and are concerned for them, so choose a quiet time to mention it.
- Listen. Give them time and space to talk openly. Listen with the intent to try and understand how they are feeling, rather than listening with the intent to reply with immediate solutions.
- Small tokens make a big difference. A little gesture can go a long way for someone experiencing anxiety. Some flowers, a book, or an invite for dinner at yours. Nothing fancy needed, just a small token to show them you care and are thinking of them.
- Encourage relaxation. Maybe offer some practical tips on self-care and things that you do to take time for yourself to rest and recoup. If your friend feels anxious most days, they may struggle to remember the last time they felt relaxed, but reducing their stress levels can really help to reduce symptoms.
What if a friend with anxiety needs more support than you can offer?
It is not always easy to support a friend with anxiety, especially if it is having a serious negative impact on their day-to-day life or they are not appreciative of your help.
Sometimes getting professional therapy can save a lot of pain and extra months or years of suffering. The benefits of counselling are enormous and means your friend will have a ‘toolbox’ of strategies they can use to live more positively and with less anxiety.
As a fully trained psychotherapist and experienced counsellor I can help them develop new ways of thinking to help them move past the anxious thoughts that so often hold them back from leading a fulfilling life.
They may be experiencing anxiety due to current or past abuse, trauma, or other difficult situation, or they might not even know why they feel the way they do.
There is no need to give up hope, professional support is available and I can offer confidential counselling in a comfortable space, or virtually if needs be.
If your friend would like to book a counselling session, they can contact me in confidence.