How to talk to a loved one with anxiety

depression and the brain

Anxiety is an incredibly common condition; up to one in four Australians have experienced it in a serious capacity at some point, often without being able to identify the problem.

If you sit within the other 75 per cent, it can be easy to feel frustrated or helpless when a friend or family member goes through a panic attack or extended period of anxiety. The signs aren’t always outwardly obvious, and traditionally helpful techniques don’t always work – but there are plenty of ways to offer comfort and support.

Read on for some of the best ways you can support a friend or family member during this difficult, confusing period.

Do you experience anxiety, or know somebody who does? We’re eager to know what worked best for you. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Learn more about the condition
To talk with somebody experiencing anxiety, it’s vital to have a basic understanding of what they’re going through.

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We usually think of anxiety as an emotional issue, but it’s far more a reflex of the body; a safety mechanism that humans evolved to keep us alive. When something doesn’t feel right – say, a suspicious rustle in the bushes – the stress will trigger a surge of adrenaline, giving us the energy to deal with any immediate danger.

However, while this sudden burst of panic was very useful in keeping our ancestors safe from sabre-toothed tigers, it’s far less useful if you feel it in the middle of a shopping trip, a drive or a conversation. To somebody with an anxiety disorder, this danger reflex can come seemingly out of nowhere, without any clear reason, and last far longer.

This creates a very uncomfortable sensation: a feeling of heart-pounding panic, but with no clear or obvious way to act on it. This, in turn, can cause squirmishness, difficulty concentrating and general indecisiveness. Learn to recognise these small antisocial cues as possible signs that something’s not right.

Offer understanding, not judgement
“Just relax”; “snap out of it”; “get your act together”. These words will never be helpful to somebody who does not feel in control of their own thoughts. On the contrary, this well-meaning encouragement can sometimes make matters worse.

As with depression, anxiety can lie beyond this type of personal control. If their worry isn’t rational or proportionate, chances are they already know they shouldn’t be anxious – and feel far worse off because of it.

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It’s important to acknowledge this as a common medical condition – not, as they may be assuming, a personal fault. If necessary, remind them that it’s temporary, treatable and no indication of who they are as a person. Make it abundantly clear that they don’t need to be at their best right now; just see this current phase through.

Ask simple, non-confronting questions
The cause of anxiety isn’t always obvious, but it’s often triggered by problems that don’t have an immediate solution; uncomfortable thoughts that lurk in the back of the mind.

Ask your loved one if they’re comfortable talking about it. Keep it straightforward: “what’s troubling you?” Not everybody will be eager to talk, and those boundaries must be respected. That said: try your best. The simple task of verbalising the issue can really help them clarify it in their own mind; an invaluable step toward long-term closure.

Offer solutions, not problems
It’s one of the most natural human responses to somebody going through a rough time: “is there anything I can do to help?”

In a moment of minor personal turmoil, this question is surprisingly difficult to answer. Anxiety will often affect people’s ability to make clear decisions. Rather than putting the burden of a solution on them, offer simple, ready-made options. Drive over with a freezable dinner to make their life a little easier. Offer to book a GP visit for them, or even to accompany them to the appointment.

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Don’t be afraid to take a step back
It’s difficult to fight the instinct to be overprotective. However, sometimes an anxious loved one may simply need some breathing space; to take the time to untangle their own thoughts.

It’s worth remembering that even the simplest social obligation can add to the burden of anxiety. While it can be hard not to take this personally, one of the nicest things you can do for somebody under this pressure is let them cancel their immediate plans with you.

Similarly, when leaving a text or phone message, make it abundantly clear that you’re just checking in, and that they’re not obliged to reply if they aren’t feeling up to it.

Try to weigh the short term needs (keeping them comfortable on their own terms) against their long term priorities (encouraging them to actively address the problem and seek medical advice).

For more information on caring for somebody with anxiety – or dealing with it yourself – Beyond Blue has an incredibly helpful guide on the matter that we cannot recommend enough.

Do you deal with anxiety? Do you know somebody who does? We’re eager to hear from you. What advice would you give to the starts at 60 community?