Understand what anxiety can feel like and learn practical ways you can offer support to someone you care about.

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Understanding anxiety and how you can help

When someone you care about is experiencing anxiety, it's common to feel stuck between wanting to help and not knowing where to begin.

The good news is - simply being there for someone can play an important role in helping them cope and feel better.

On this page, you'll find information on:

Scroll down to learn more.

How can you recognise if someone is experiencing anxiety?

Anxiety is a normal part of our body's stress response and one of the key ways we keep ourselves safe. However, certain types of anxiety can become a mental health condition if they begin to impact a person's daily life.

Recognising if someone is experiencing anxiety isn’t always easy because everyone can show different signs and symptoms.

Common signs of anxiety

Someone experiencing anxiety may express or notice that they're:

  • Constantly worried about things that might happen
  • Overwhelmed with constant and repetitive thoughts
  • Excessively self-conscious or self-doubtful
  • Avoiding certain situations or people
  • On edge, restless or feeling irritable for no particular reason
  • Hyperventilating or feeling short of breath
  • Having difficulty sleeping
  • Struggling to concentrate or remember things
  • Experiencing headaches, stomach pain, or muscle tension
  • Getting frequent skin irritations or hair loss
  • Having panic attacks.

If you are unsure if someone you know is experiencing anxiety, we have more information about what anxiety can look like on our feelings and effects page.

How can you offer support to someone experiencing anxiety?

It can be tempting to jump in with solutions right at the start, however, it's best not to go straight into problem-solving when offering support.

While some people might be ready for help, others may need more time or would prefer to just have someone listen.

Often, one of the most powerful things you can do for a friend or family member is to simply stay connected. This could be through weekly walks, catching up for coffee, chatting on the phone or sending a text.

Below are a few more ways you can offer support.

  • Listen without judgement

    If possible, have a private and face-to-face conversation with the person you care about.

    • Let them know how much they mean to you and that you want to hear how they're feeling
    • Ask open-ended questions such as:
      • 'How have you been feeling lately?'
      • 'What's been going on for you at the moment?'
      • 'What are your biggest stressors?'
    • Listen without judgement and be curious about their experience
    • Sometimes, it can help to open up about your own experiences. In a way, it can give someone 'permission' 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, 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?'

    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 their anxiety.

    Just gently let them know that you'll always be there if they change their mind or if there’s something you can do in the future.

  • Offer to lighten their load
  • Help them reach out for support
  • Show empathy, not sympathy

In the video below, Dr. Brené Brown explains how empathy can be more powerful than sympathy in our toughest moments.

Caring for someone struggling with their mental health can be challenging, tiring, and sometimes frustrating.

It’s really important to remember that 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.

The importance of looking after your own mental health and wellbeing

When supporting someone who's experiencing mental health challenges like anxiety, it can take a big toll on our mental and physical health.

Depending on the level of care they need or the type of support they're open to, you might feel:

  • Stretched thin
  • Upset by things they're sharing with you
  • Frustrated that they're not making progress.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you are not alone. Being part of someone's support system is a big job. It's okay to take breaks and it's okay to ask for help. Nobody is expected to pour from an empty cup.

Below, we've outlined a few things you can do to look after your own mental health and wellbeing when acting as a carer.

  • Set healthy boundaries

    Boundaries are an important way we can protect our mental and physical health. By knowing and communicating what our limits are, we can ensure that we're not putting ourselves in situations that compromise our wellbeing.

    Healthy boundaries as a carer might include setting limits on:

    • The practical things you have time and energy to help with
    • When and where you’re able to help, chat, or support
    • What level of detail you're open to hearing when discussing distressing topics.
  • Share your caring role
  • Talk to people with similar experiences

What do you do when someone is 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 anxiety will have panic attacks, they can happen, which is why it's helpful to know the signs.

Signs of a panic attack can 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.

Tips for helping someone through a panic attack

Most people who experience panic attacks may already have their go-to coping methods.

If they seem open to support, 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
  • Help them refocus their attention on 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
  • Guide them through a body scan that helps them notice and release muscle tension part by part.

To learn more about anxiety and ways you can support someone you care about, you can:

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