Medical Cannabis for Anxiety
Published: 09/08/2022

How to help someone with anxiety

If you know someone with anxiety, then you know first-hand that it can be hard to know the right things to say and what to avoid.

People deal with their anxiety in their own way, and not everyone has the same ideas about what’s appropriate to say or not. But there are some things you should be aware of and certain phrases that can sometimes be best to avoid. Below you can find more about what not to say to someone with anxiety and what you can say instead to help you navigate conversations with friends or family members living with anxiety.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a feeling of fear or worry that can range from mild to severe. Understanding more about anxiety and how it can affect those who experience it is a good first step to supporting your family or friends.

Although feeling anxious occasionally is perfectly normal, sometimes it can be hard to control, and these feelings of fear or worry surface more often and can affect daily life.

Symptoms of anxiety

The most common symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Excessive worry and anxiety
  • Feeling a sense of dread
  • Restlessness and easily irritable
  • Headaches, stomach aches, and aching muscles
  • Shortness of breath
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Poor sleep and fatigue

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are sometimes thought of as anxiety disorders but are now more commonly categorised separately to those conditions listed.

What are the types of anxiety disorders?

Anxiety refers to a broad group of conditions, rather than a specific condition. These conditions include:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Phobias (specific phobias, like agoraphobia, a fear of places or situations that create feelings of anxiety)

If you feel you might experience long-term and persistent anxiety or know someone who does, you should always speak to a mental health professional or a medical professional, like your GP. They’ll be able to talk through what you’re experiencing and create a treatment plan to help you manage.

Treatment for anxiety

There are also different treatment options available to help treat anxiety, including:

  • Talking therapies, like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or psychotherapy
  • Medicines – such as a class of antidepressants called selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs), or beta-blockers for acute anxiety

To find out what causes anxiety and ways to relieve the symptoms visit our anxiety condition page for more in-depth information.

How to support someone with anxiety

Once you have more knowledge of anxiety, including its common causes and symptoms, it provides you with more awareness of the condition and can help you understand what someone suffering from anxiety may be going through. Below we have put together our list of what to say to someone with anxiety to help you communicate with your loved one.

Don’t ask, “Are you ok?”

This question doesn’t allow much opportunity for an open answer when it comes to wanting to ask how they are, it is more about the wording – perhaps ask, “How are you feeling?”. This open question is more likely to lead to a conversation. When they are answering, show you are listening and be empathetic towards them.

Don’t say, “Everyone gets stressed/anxious.”

Stress is different to someone suffering from anxiety or a panic disorder. Stress is not recognised as a mental disorder. It is a natural response when our demands outweigh our coping strategies, and we can all experience stress. You shouldn’t compare other emotions or conditions to someone dealing with anxiety, as this has no added benefit.

An anxiety disorder is the presence of anxiety for a long period of time (a minimum of six months) that significantly impairs functioning. For example, they can’t focus on work or study, can’t care for themselves properly, or can’t take part in social activities or hobbies.

If you want to share with someone, perhaps say, “I’ve experienced stress before, but it sounds like you’re struggling quite a bit with anxiety at the moment. Could you tell me a bit more?”

Don’t say, “It’s not that bad” or “Just relax and calm down.”

The anxiety response is a primitive safety response designed to protect us against threats to our life. This is an evolutionary response, so it’s immediate. We can’t control the onset of anxiety. Our amygdala (the brain’s threat centre) is activated and adrenaline is released.

This sets off many physical changes in our body to protect us, almost like a burglar alarm alerting us to an intruder. This is known as the ‘fight or flight response’. If this response is triggered suddenly, it can be very scary for someone with anxiety. This can trigger more anxiety and reinforces the cycle. Depending on the type of anxiety, they may have such extreme physical anxiety symptoms that they may fear harm or death. With panic attacks, for example, the common thought is “I may faint or die” due to breathlessness and dizziness associated with the anxiety attack response.

In situations such as this, telling them to calm down will not help, instead, say something along the lines of “take a breath, and focus on your surroundings.”

Don’t say, “It will go away.”

Anxiety is an essential emotional response and we shouldn’t want it to go away completely. However, it can be managed better with the right support to reduce the impact that it has. They can learn when it’s helpful to be anxious and when it’s not. In situations where it’s not, you and your friend or family member can develop strategies to reduce the intensity of their anxiety.

One strategy that people use is the 3-3-3 rule. This is where you look around and name three things you can see, three sounds you can hear, and then move three parts of your body. The idea is to shift their focus from negative thoughts and panic and hopefully begin to calm their mind. When it comes to knowing how to ease anxiety, this is something you can learn to help guide them through if you’re with them during a period of anxiety, rather than trying to reassure them that it will ‘go away’

Don’t say, “Stop thinking so much.”

Anxiety leads to overthinking and worry. Even though worrying is a natural behaviour, people with anxiety may not see it that way. Overthinking seems like something they have no control over. Telling them to think less may make them feel invalidated, like you don’t appreciate how they feel. Their thoughts are important, real, and worrying.

Often anxiety leads us to imagine the worst possible outcomes of our current circumstances. Even though this is unlikely to us, it’s the most likely scenario for someone with anxiety. Anxiety impacts our ability to switch off from thoughts and properly reason them.

Don’t say anything about using drugs or alcohol to cope or “I have a drink when I get stressed.”

Alcohol is a depressant, it can take the edge off anxiety, but the next day it can increase anxiety. Although alcohol numbs emotions, and you may feel better, it doesn’t help your body tolerate anxiety symptoms. It just reduces them temporarily. The symptoms will remain at the same level. Helpful strategies include breathing exercises, relaxation exercises, attention training and mindfulness.

Don’t say, “Have you thought about changing jobs/relationships/living situations?”

It’s easy to say that the anxiety is situational, and sometimes that might be the case, but generally, it’s a combination of factors. While to you, there might be an easy solution to the problem, it might not be the case for the person with anxiety.

For example, how easy can you change your job/career/relationship when you may be financially dependent? It’s about trying to be there for people and offer a space to listen. Doing this will help empower them to make their own choices. For example, you could say, “Have you considered talking to someone? You can go to your GP or refer online.”

Getting help for anxiety

When talking to someone who experiences anxiety, the main takeaway is to be there for them, listen and be supportive. We also have some helpful links for further information and support groups.

  • Anxiety UK – charity offering support for anxiety sufferers and their friends/families
  • Mind Charity – Mental health charity
  • CCI – Offer Advice on supporting others with anxiety disorders
  • Get Self-Help – Offer advice and support on anxiety disorders

If you experience anxiety or know someone who does, why not contact us today to see how we can help support you.

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