Everyone wants to be a good friend. But when your friend has anxiety, being a “good friend” might mean stepping into a different role. This friendship will probably look different from your other friendships. To be more supportive, your friendship doesn’t have to change, but being there for your friend with anxiety probably means taking some extra steps.
What exactly is anxiety, and how can you help your friend who suffers from an anxiety disorder? Take a look at what we’ve found out.
Anxiety vs. Anxiety Disorder
While you might feel anxious from time to time, about certain events or areas of your life, there’s a difference between simply feeling anxiety and having an anxiety disorder. Anxiety is a normal feeling that can even be helpful. For example, if you feel anxious about a big test, that anxiety may prompt you to study hard and to perform well on your test. In the end, your anxiety helped you.
But if you have a friend with a diagnosed anxiety disorder, then anxiety turns into a different animal. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “Generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by excessive anxiety and worry about a variety of events or activities (e.g., work or school performance) that occurs more days than not, for at least 6 months.”
Excessively worrying or being excessively anxious can be detrimental to your health, and if your friend has been diagnosed, then it has definitely been detrimental to her. It’s important to know that people with generalized anxiety disorder find it difficult to control their worries. You’ve probably heard this before, but saying, “Stop worrying!” is not helpful!
Besides generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety is the other main type of anxiety disorder. Other related conditions include depression, stress, specific phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and panic disorder.
The strategies that we discuss here are specific to helping a friend with an anxiety disorder, but they might help someone with a different type of disorder, too. But always remember: you’re not a qualified health care professional!
Understand Your Friend’s Triggers
Everyone is different. As a result, different triggers evoke different reactions in different people. While the mention of a sensitive topic might send one friend crying into the bathroom, another friend may hold their tears in until later and you’ll never know that what you said to upset her.
To help your friend with anxiety or an anxiety disorder, ask her if she would be comfortable discussing her triggers with you. If the answer is yes, have an open and honest conversation about what topics upset her and usually make her anxiety worse.
Knowing your friend’s triggers will help you to treat her with more sensitivity. It will also help in other social situations when it’s not just you and your friend in the conversation. When a difficult topic comes up and your friend shuts down, you can offer her the support she needs by knowing more about why she’s feeling triggered and upset.
Symptoms of Anxiety
In general, there are several symptoms of anxiety that you can look out for. Knowing what to watch for can help you understand how seriously your friend’s anxiety disorder is affecting her at this point in time.
Difficulty concentrating, trouble sleeping, feeling a sense of impending danger, panic, or doom, and experiencing gastrointestinal problems are all symptoms. Feeling nervous, weak, tired, irritable, and on edge are also all symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder.
Again, remember that you’re not a qualified mental health professional. Knowing that these are some of the key symptoms of anxiety can help you recognize when your friend might need extra support, but that doesn’t mean that you will always be able to pick up on these symptoms all the time – or that you should expect yourself to. You’re only human, and this isn’t your job! That said, being familiar with these symptoms can still help you be supportive of your friend.
Be Part of Her Support Network
Your friend with anxiety may not feel like she has a lot of support in her life, especially if her anxiety disorder has caused her to push other people away. That’s why it’s important to let your friend know that she is not alone. Share how you want to be there for her and ask her what you can do to help support her.
Sometimes, all you’ll need to do is sit on the couch together for an hour or two. Other times, supporting your friend might mean spending the whole day together at the mall and not talking about her anxiety at all. Do what you reasonably can to be part of her support network, and when you can’t physically be there for your friend, tell her. Text her, email her, make her a card and mail it to her house. Let her know that you want to be part of her support network.
Read More: Meditation, Anxiety, and You
Know the Difference Between Myths and Reality
You may be tempted to seek out information online to help you learn about how to be even more supportive of your friend with anxiety. While the internet is an amazing place with lots of fantastic information, it’s also a place where false information spreads like wildfire. It’s important to know what’s the truth and what’s a lie when it comes to dealing with anxiety.
For example, you might have heard that someone who suffers from anxiety should wear a rubber band or hair tie around their wrist. Any time an anxious thought crops up, they should snap that rubber band to make themselves associate it with physical pain and forget it – right?
Actually, it’s much better to deal with those feelings instead of suppressing them. Snapping a rubber band against your wrist won’t just hurt the skin; it’ll also hurt the process of managing those thoughts. Don’t encourage your friend to repress her thoughts or to use any other method that you’re not completely positive is effective.
Offer Centering Techniques
Instead, practice proven strategies to help with anxiety. One category of these strategies is known as centering, or grounding, techniques. These techniques can help your friend with an anxiety disorder as she manages it, and they can also help you if you have a day when you’re feeling extra anxious. Centering techniques empower you to focus on your surroundings rather than your symptoms.
According to Emily Weaver at HelloGiggles, “A common example is having someone list objects they can see, touch, smell, and hear. If they prefer to keep their eyes closed, offer to walk them through a light stretch like rolling out their shoulders.”
Take a deep breath and try both of these exercises on your own. Did they help you feel more grounded and centered in the present moment? Hopefully, they did, and you can see why practicing them with your friend can help.
So, while simply being there for your friend is important, sometimes she may need more. In those difficult situations, it’s a good idea to try specific, focused strategies, like grounding techniques, to manage anxiety.
Remember: You’re Not a Professional
However, don’t take it too far. You might be tempted to just continue to give and give of yourself to your friend with anxiety. You may want to look for more strategies in addition to grounding and centering techniques. You may be tempted to just continue to give of yourself.
It’s important to remember both that “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” Your needs are important, too!
Instead of stretching yourself thin by trying to always be there for your friend with anxiety, normalize going to therapy. If you yourself are in therapy, or you’re close to someone who is, talk about it with your friend who has anxiety. Help them feel comfortable discussing going to therapy and seeking treatment.
It’s equally important to remember that you’re not a qualified health professional. Therefore, you can’t always provide the best treatment that your friend with anxiety needs.
You may feel like this is the type of friendship where you “give” and she “takes.” Remember that if this goes too far, you may need to take a step back from the friendship or take a break.
Use “We” Statements
One way to help your friend feel less alone is by using “we” statements. These are especially helpful in a moment of crisis. You can say to your friend, “We should take a deep breath now. Let’s breathe in together and then out together. We’ve got this!”
Using “we” statements is a subtle but effective way to help your friend with anxiety know that she’s not alone and that you’re there to support her.
It’s also important to not enable your friend with anxiety. It can be tempting to want to help your friend avoid painful situations. However, this kind of enabling can actually cause more severe problems for your friend.
According to Dr. Joseph McGuire, “If you continue to modify your behavior or the environment to accommodate your loved one’s anxiety, this can unintentionally enable the anxiety to persist and grow. Avoiding difficult situations doesn’t give your loved one the opportunity to overcome fears and learn how to master anxiety. Instead, it makes their world smaller as what they are able to do becomes more and more limited by their growing anxiety.”