I’ve worked with many people who suffer from and live with anxiety and in my years of service and friendship I have discovered a few things. Here are my tips on empowering yourself to better serve those with anxiety.
1. Learn how to listen effectively
Listening to someone with anxiety (and really anyone) is about creating a space in which they are comfortable to share what they feel and think, where they know that they will not be judged for their thoughts or feelings, no matter how irrational, emotional, inefficient, or scary those thoughts or feelings are. When someone with anxiety speaks or writes (or any other form of expression) about their thoughts they can gain perspective, and if those thoughts can exist in another human being without judgement, there is a chance for relief.
2. Ask if you can give your opinion
One of the major challenges in communicating with someone with anxiety is the ease by which people can get defensive. One of the best ways to circumvent this non-intended power struggle, is for you as the supporter to ask permission to give your opinion. “Can I say what I’m thinking?” Something like this can go a long way in helping a person feel in control of their moment. Your thoughts, as you share them, will invade a person’s mind and need significant energy to be dealt with. Giving them time to prepare and say “yes” or “no” will put a check and balance on your support and empower them.
If they say no, take it as a sign that they still need to express things before they’re ready for new thinking. This is a cue to continue reflective listening!
3. Provide opportunities for physical movement or exertion, but do not force
“Stuckness”, or the state of being stuck, in this case cognitively and emotionally can have a very powerful hold on a person. When the mind is stuck the body becomes stuck and when the body becomes unstuck, or moves, there is a greater pressure on the mind to become unstuck or move. Put another way, when people are stuck, anxiety can easily hold them and make them go in circles, but when a person moves, the mind responds to other stimuli and the anxiety cannot hold them as firmly, which hopefully leads to seeing a way out of the pattern of thinking. You cannot force this, but you can provide opportunities. Do not ask, instead tell.
“Come for a walk with me.” not: “Want to go for a walk?”.
4. AVOID THE USE OF CLICHÉS
I’ll add that this is particularly helpful if you are older than the person you are supporting. Clichês may be true, fitting, and accurate, but in the moment they are more than likely not helpful. They imply the ability to fix, or that things are simple, and when a person is caught in anxious thinking the world is far from simple. They also suggest that you or society in general knows more than the person you’re supporting about their own experience. Again, they are more than likely true, and more than likely helpful in the long term, but not 100%, and not for everyone, just for most. Better to listen and create safe space, than to assume you know what’s what.
Resist the urge to tell someone it’s a blessing in disguise! If they come to that themselves and use it positively then great! Run with it!
5. Break it down when people are in a good space
There’s nothing worse than trying to reinvent the wheel when going into crisis. Having a person specific plan can save a lot of anguish. If you are a close supporter of a person, take some time to be proactive and talk about your ideas for support. “Would it be helpful if I did this…?”, “What ideas do you have on how I could be a better support?”, “How would you feel if I…?”. These questions can strengthen a relationship and the strength of relationship helps determine the depth of exploration possible. Remember that you’re not trying to fix it, there’s no fixing this; it’s about adaptation and cognitive flexibility.
If you have questions or comments, write them down below and we’ll respond, hope these help!