Let’s say your friend has anxiety and you don’t. Sure, you stress about little things from time to time, but we’re talking full-fledged, diagnosable anxiety disorders. If you don’t have anxiety, it can be tough to know how to respond when you see your friend struggling. It’s tempting to dismiss the situation and say something like, “It’s OK, there’s no need to be stressed,” but, as clinical psychologist Dr. Georgia Witkin, Head of Patient Services Development at Progyny, tells us, that’s not all that helpful.
“At the end of the day, I have found with my patients (and even myself!) that we only listen to advice we give ourselves—not the advice of our friends, peers, family, etc.,” Dr. Witkin tells us. “So if we’re anxious, chances are that we’ve already told ourselves to relax and did not, or could not, listen.” Having someone repeat what we’ve already told ourselves, she notes, just adds additional, unwanted pressure.
That’s not to say there’s nothing that you as an outsider can do to help. Below, find six actually helpful ways to react to a friend who has anxiety without trivializing their feelings.
6 Helpful Ways to React to Someone’s Anxiety
1. Let Them Talk, Then Repeat What They Say
Rather than jumping in to offer advice, the main goal is to listen and then repeat their worries back to them. This not only shows that you’re paying attention and generally trying to help, but it also helps them accept their feelings. Per Dr. Witkin, “Sometimes we don’t realize what we’re saying until someone mirrors it back to us!”
2. Ask Questions to Understand Their Feelings Better
It’s important to clarify that this isn’t to instruct or shame. Instead of saying “How can you possibly think that way?” try something like, “Can you tell me more about what’s making you anxious?” And then listen rather than immediately preparing a response. “This helps you to focus on understanding their feelings fully,” Dr. Witkin explains. “Once you’ve taken the time to listen and process what they are saying and feeling, you can let them know they are OK and that you are here to help as much as they need you.”
3. Ask What Would Make Them Feel Better
As great as it would be, you’re not a mind reader. Unless you ask what you can do to help, you’re not going to magically know how to make all their troubles disappear. Dr. Witkin points out that it could be something as simple as they just want you listen, or maybe they need help with something more tangible, like picking up their kids or bringing dinner over. The point is, always ask.
4. Don’t Try to “Fix” the Problem
“When you do this, you might sound like you are trying to take over and increase their sense of helplessness and frustration,” Dr. Witkin stresses. Listening is just as powerful. Plus, chances are they’re already taking multiple steps to feel better, and assuming that you can swoop in and save the day trivializes all the work they’ve already put in.
5. Follow Up
Once the situation is neutralized, that doesn’t mean you should move on and never speak of it again. Instead, let your friend know that you’ll be checking in on them to make sure they’re doing OK (and that it’s absolutely fine if they want to reach out again). “They need to know you’re there, especially when it can feel like they’re being a burden,” Dr. Witkin tells us.
6. Avoid Clichés
Even if they really are exactly how you feel, Dr. Witkin stresses that clichés just don’t sound sincere. A simple, “I’m sorry to hear that’s how you’re feeling,” tends to be what brings comfort to most people.