Over the past year and a half as a therapist, I have heard the word anxiety (or some derivative of it) more than I typically expect to. This is reasonable—we’ve experienced an increasingly long period of time that is challenging and uncertain, and anxiety often occurs when our futures feel unpredictable. Additionally, anxiety can creep in when we feel like our choices and experiences are out of our control.
With the ongoing pandemic, environmental disasters, a fluctuating economy, and an ever-changing political system, it makes sense that we’re experiencing higher rates of anxiety than we’re accustomed to. But what do we do if it is not our anxiety that we are experiencing, but a family member or friend with anxiety? Supporting someone in distress can be just as hard as experiencing distress. Here’s how to support those in your life who are feeling a bit anxious.
What is anxiety?
According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety is, “An emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” Anxiety is characterized by continuous intrusive thoughts, avoidance of anxiety inducing situations, and potential physical symptoms like increased heart rate, dizziness, shaking, and sweating. Many people may be surprised to know that “anxiety” is actually a term used to describe a group of mental health disorders all related to the symptoms described above. Some of these disorders include:
- generalized anxiety disorder
- separation anxiety disorder
- selective mutism
- specific phobia
- social anxiety disorder
- panic disorder
- substance/medication-induced anxiety disorder
- anxiety disorder due to another medical condition.
As demonstrated above, anxiety can take several different shapes and forms. As the COVID-19 pandemic persists, social anxiety and agoraphobia in particular will likely be more prevalent due to consequences from the need for social distancing. Hard data on this information has not yet been released as we are still adjusting to our new normal.
Current state of anxiety in the United States
What does the new normal mean for the state of anxiety in the United States? Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, rates of anxiety have increased – by a lot. According to Mental Health America, the number of American adults requesting support for anxiety has increased exponentially. Between January and September of 2020, 315,220 people were screened for anxiety, which indicated a 93 percent increase from 2019. Additionally, 80 percent of people who qualified for a diagnosis of anxiety reported symptoms in the moderate to severe range. These number are particularly high for Black people and African Americans.
Overall, according to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, 40 million American adults have an anxiety disorder. The current top three most common anxiety disorders are specific phobias impacting 19 million adults, social anxiety impacting 15 million adults, and generalized anxiety disorder impacting 6.8 million adults. It is likely that you know someone who exists in these groups of people impacted by anxiety. Continue reading to learn how you can support a friend with anxiety.
Supportive actions to take with a friend with anxiety
Learn about anxiety
It can be challenging to support someone if you don’t have some understanding of their experience. Take time to read articles about the type of anxiety that your loved one is experiencing. A great resource for mental health related content is PsychologyToday.com.
Listen with intention
Active listening is more challenging that we often realize, but is valuable when trying to support someone in distress. Often, we listen to respond, instead of listening to understand. To practice active listening, challenge yourself to not think about a response until after the person speaking has finished. It is ok to take time to contemplate a response.
Ask your friend about what they need
It is normal for each of us to have varying needs when we are in distress. It is also normal for us to assume that someone else in distress will need what we would need. That’s not always the case. Sometimes we need someone to listen without commenting. Other times we want feedback, and at times we may want to problem solve. Your loved one may know what they need for support, but may not know how to request what they are looking for. It is reasonable to ask them how you can be supportive.
Don’t enable avoidance behaviors
Often, people with anxiety may find themselves engaging in avoidance behaviors to stay away from the experience that brings anxiety. For example, if ordering food in a restaurant is anxiety provoking, an avoidance behavior may look like asking a friend to order for them. While it may feel supportive to order for your friend, you are actually preventing them from working through their anxiety. If you notice a loved one with anxiety engaging in avoidance behaviors, support them by not engaging with them and offering words of encouragement.
Set and hold boundaries
A key factor of being supportive to others is ensuring that you are taking care of yourself. That means it is ok ayto not be available at all times for your loved one with anxiety. If someone reaches out for support, but you are not available, you can tell them, “I care about you, but right now is not a good time for me. Let’s get together this week.”
Support your friend in accessing resources
One of the most valuable ways to be a supportive person for someone with anxiety is helping them get connected to resources. Some resources include therapy, support groups, and advocacy groups. These connections can speed up improvement and help your loved one add to their support network.
Witnessing a loved one in distress can be painful, but having the tools and knowledge to support them will allow for healing.