Supporting a Friend with Anxiety

As COVID cases continue to rise, so does the anxiety we, and the people in our lives, experience. If you have a friend who had anxiety before the pandemic struck, you may notice them struggling more now than they were before. If you have been stressed because you don’t know how to support them during this time, you are not alone. It can be difficult to know what the right response is when someone in your life is experiencing heightening anxiety, or even a panic attack. Here are some tips for navigating helping a friend when they are feeling anxious and overwhelmed:

If your friend is experiencing a panic attack:

  • Speak to your friend calmly and remember that because they are experiencing “fight or flight” they may not act how they do normally.
  • Avoid telling your friend to simply “not worry” as even though you mean well, this isn’t the most helpful response in the moment. Instead try:
    • Asking them to take slow, deep breaths. You can do this together, so that they are able to follow your breathing pattern.
    • Try a “grounding” activity: ask your friend to name five things that they can see, five things they can hear, and five things they can feel. Then, continue by doing four things for each category, and so on. 
    • Help them get to a more comfortable position, such as sitting down if they were standing.
    • Remind them that this is a panic attack, which means the panic is not permanent and will soon go away.
  • Ask your friend in advance if there are any techniques they think are effective for when they have had panic attacks in the past so that you can use strategies familiar to them.

If your friend is experiencing heightened anxiety:

  • Ask your friend what you can do to help them. Even if they do not know exactly what would make their situation better, knowing that you are there for them and ready to help when needed, will help them to feel supported.
    • If your friend does not have a response to this question you can ask “would it help if I just sat here with you?” Sometimes offering your supportive presence can mean more to your friend than you would expect.
  • Let your friend know that you are always there for them. You can explain to them that if they need you they can always call or text you, or talk about how they feel with you. 
  • Validate their emotions. Even if you don’t quite understand how a situation could make your friend anxious, let them know that their emotions are both valid and nothing to feel ashamed of.
  • Encourage your friend to consider talking to a professional mental health provider about their anxiety, as you are not capable of offering the treatment that a therapist is. 

Remember to look after your own mental health because watching someone you love struggle with anxiety can take a toll on you. You can always talk to a professional or someone you trust about your feelings and worries regarding your friend. Remember: you cannot help someone before you have helped yourself.