Understanding anxiety and how you can help
Is someone you care about currently experiencing feelings of anxiety? Your support can play an important role in helping them cope and feel better.
You might feel stuck between wanting to help and not knowing how. Even if you don’t know where to start, or what will help, often simply being there for them can mean a great deal.
On this page you will find practical steps you can take to support someone with anxiety.
Caring for someone struggling with their mental health can be challenging, tiring, and sometimes frustrating. It’s really important to remember:
- Ultimately, we can’t always help, or ‘fix’ someone else. You might try your best and do everything you can without them improving, and that’s not your fault or your failure.
- Some people might not want help, or not be ready for it, and that’s their choice to make. Sometimes the best you can do is to let them know you’re there if they change their mind.
- Always remember to look after yourself. It’s hard to help someone else if you’re struggling yourself, so being aware of your own needs and practicing self-care should always come first.
How can you recognise if someone is experiencing anxiety?
We can feel anxiety when we’re worried, tense or afraid of situations, things or specific events. We experience anxiety and stress because they are our body’s in-built mechanism for keeping us safe - they help our mind and body perform more effectively in stressful situations.
While some stress and anxiety is normal, if these feelings stick around after the event or situation has passed, or get in the way of daily life, this might be a sign of a mental health problem.
Recognising anxiety in someone you care about isn’t always easy, as everyone can show different signs and symptoms.
If you know the person well, it’s best to trust your gut as to whether they’re acting differently, or something has changed for them.
Someone managing feelings of anxiety may express feeling:
- Constantly worried about things that might happen
- Overwhelmed with constant and repetitive thoughts
- Excessively self-conscious or self-doubtful
- On edge, restless or feeling irritable for no particular reason.
They may show symptoms, such as:
- Hyperventilating, shortness of breath, or panic attacks
- Changes in sleeping patterns
- Difficulty concentrating or memory issues
- Stomach discomfort
- Particular habits such as biting their nails, or scratching their skin
- Avoiding specific situations or things.
If you are unsure if someone you know is experiencing anxiety, we have more information about understanding anxiety here. If you’re still unsure about whether you should offer support, it’s usually best to simply ask the person if you can help, in a non-confrontational and non-judgemental way.
How you can help someone having a panic attack
A panic attack is a sudden rush of intense anxiety or fear together with a surge of frightening physical sensations and thoughts. While not everyone who experiences stress or anxiety will have panic attacks, they can happen for those who experience anxiety, so it can be helpful to know the signs. They might include:
- a pounding or rapid heartbeat
- feeling light headed or dizzy
- sweating, trembling or shaking
- pain in the chest or abdomen
- struggling to breathe or feeling like you're choking
- Feeling like you’re going to faint, or are having a heart attack.
Panic attacks can be frightening, especially if it seems as if they have come out of the blue. If someone you care about is experiencing a panic attack, there are things you can do to help.
Most people who experience panic attacks may already have their go-to coping methods. Keep in mind they know best. Having said that, here are some steps you can take to help.
- Try your best to stay calm and non-judgemental
- Gently let them know that you’re there to support them and they will get through this
- Encourage them to take slow, deep breaths, as much as is possible
- If you’re in an overwhelming environment, ask them if they’d like to move somewhere quieter if they are able to
- Encourage them to refocus their attention to something that grounds them in the moment. You could ask them to name:
- Five things they can see
- Three things they can hear
- One thing they can smell
- Suggest they focus on their breathing and gradually releasing tension around their eyes and through their body until they feel better.
Other ways to help
Sometimes, we can feel a need or responsibility to “fix” someone who is experiencing anxiety. However, most people will want to have control over their own life and their own decisions, so it’s important to respect their choices and boundaries. It’s usually most helpful to play a supportive role through non-judgemental conversation and helpful actions.
- Start a conversation
Often one of the most powerful things you can do for a friend or family member is to let them know that you’re there for them.
Knowing how and when to have this important conversation can be tricky.
Here are a few tips:
- Try to create time for the conversation. This might mean suggesting a walk or other activity that gives you the time to talk, without distractions. It might mean waiting until the end of an event when you have time to yourselves
- Gently let them know that you care about them, and want to help
- Listen and be curious about their experience. Give them space to share if they choose to. You can ask open questions such as ‘how are you feeling?’ or ‘what’s going on for you at the moment?’
- Sometimes it can help to open up about your own experiences, which can ‘give permission’ to your friend or family member to also share. Being vulnerable can be hard, but it’s easier if you’re both in the same boat.
- Rather than jumping to solutions, it can be helpful to ask what they need from you in that moment. You might ask something like ‘would you like me to just listen right now, or would you like help thinking about what you might do from here?'
- Try to resist the urge to paint a silver lining, or minimise their concerns. Instead, it can be helpful to validate their experience by saying things like ‘it sounds like you are going through a really tough time right now’ or ‘that must be so difficult for you’.
It can be really hard for people to open up, especially the first time, so don’t be disheartened or hurt if your friend or family member doesn’t want to talk about it.
You might like to gently let them know that you’re still there if they change their mind, or if there’s something you can do in the future.
Dr. Brené Brown explains how to be truly empathetic through getting in touch with our own fragilities.
- Offer practical support
- Support them to seek help
Looking after yourself and your own mental health
It can be really hard to support someone struggling with their mental health. They may require extra attention or specific support that especially impact the people around them. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you are not alone, and there are support services available specifically for anyone who supports those with mental health issues (also known as a carer).
Remember that ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’. The best way you can care for someone else, is to make sure you are okay first. Looking after yourself as a carer means being tuned in to how you’re feeling, and looking after yourself when you need to.
This might include:
- Setting healthy boundaries
- Share your caring role
- Talk to people with similar experiences
Actively practice self-care
- Be kind to yourself
Being kind to yourself while caring for others is really important. You might feel frustrated, stretched, or even powerless, but adding shame or guilt to those emotions by criticising yourself will only make you feel worse.
It’s ok to reduce the expectations you’ve set for yourself, and to take a break when you need it.
- Eating well
- Getting regular exercise
- Avoiding substances
- Getting enough sleep
- Getting out into nature
- Developing a routine
- Engage in your hobbies