Don't Tell Me To Relax: 5 Things to Do When Someone You Love Has Anxiety
Just relax! It's going to be fine!"
Have you ever had someone tell you to "just relax?" In my experience, it is probably the most infuriating thing you can say to a person who has anxiety. It almost never works. In fact, it often has the opposite effect. There's an implication in that statement that we are choosing to feel anxiety (as if someone would ever willingly choose to feel this way). Typically, we end up feeling frustrated, misunderstood and alone when someone says this, all while still coping with the ever-present anxiety.
Our sarcastic inner self might be begging to say something snarky, like "Gee, I wish I would have thought of that. Thank goodness you're here to tell me to relax. I feel SO much better now." Or perhaps, our inner anxiety feels ready to strike back with a "I CAN'T relax! There are too many things to do!!" But either way, saying "Just relax" almost ensures that you are going to get locked into a battle with anxiety that you aren't capable of winning.
If you've ever told someone to "just relax," I'm certain that you were well intentioned. You probably saw your loved one's increasing anxiety, the impact it was having on their wellbeing, and desperately wanted to help them. In fact, you might have initially thought that you were being helpful and supportive. However, the fact that you're here suggests that you've realized that what you're doing isn't working. That's ok. You care enough to research what is helpful and that's an amazing first step.
So let's talk about what you can do to actually help when someone you care about is anxious.
1. Read The Signs
Anxiety does not come out of nowhere (as much as it can sometimes seem like it does). Rather, anxiety builds and leaves little hints and clues along the way. It might start with a tightening in the chest for one person, or perhaps irritability for someone else. The tricky part about anxiety is that there is no certain formula for how anxiety starts and emerges because each person's symptom profile is unique. The only truly consistent theme is that we have "early symptoms" of anxiety that tend to become present when we are experiencing lower levels of anxiety. If these early symptoms are not identified and coped with, they progress into more intense and significant symptoms. It is always easier to cope with early symptoms of anxiety because they are less intense. The earlier we intervene, the more successful we are at coping with anxiety.
So how can you use this information to help your loved one? You need to learn to read their early symptoms and signs. That doesn't mean that you need to read their mind or guess what their early symptoms are. Have a conversation with them about what early signs and symptoms they show. Perhaps they already know what their early symptoms are. If they don't, you both can make a conscious effort to pay attention to the early symptoms each time anxiety hits. Once you've identified those early symptoms, you can support your loved one by gently pointing out that an early symptom is present.
2. Empathy and Validation
When someone you care about has anxiety, approach them with empathy and validate their feelings. This doesn't mean that you have to tell them that all of their fears and worries will come true. Validating means that you acknowledge that what they are feeling is real and intense. Being empathetic means that you are acknowledging that what they are experiencing is painful, overwhelming and exhausting.
When we tell someone to "just relax," the underlying message we are giving them is "your worries aren't valid." We all want to be understood by others. When we don't receive that validation, we feel alone and isolated. You can acknowledge and validate their experience without feeding into their anxiety. It can be as simple as, "John, it seems like you're feeling really anxious. From my point of view, it looks like you're feeling totally overwhelmed."
Imagine how you would respond to someone saying that to you. Usually, the response is something like, "You're right! I'm totally overwhelmed. I have a million things I need to do..." And then they start talking about all of the things that are worrying them. This gives us further opportunities to show empathy for what they are experiencing and validate how difficult it is for them.
3. Support Or Solutions?
Once we've heard what is triggering anxiety for a loved one, we often jump into "problem solving" mode. If you think about it, it makes sense; you hear all of the things that are creating anxiety and you can come up with a lot of different solutions for how to manage that anxiety. But what if your loved one doesn't want or need to hear solutions right now?
Sometimes, we aren't looking for someone else to problem solve for us at all. Sometimes, we just want a supportive shoulder to lean on. Because you care about this person, it's natural to jump into problem solving because it feels like a tangible way to help them. But when we provide solutions to someone who needs support, they end up feeling unheard. The only way to truly know what the other person needs is to ask them. You might say something like, "We've talked a lot about all of the things that are making you anxious right now. Do you want me to help you look for solutions to those or do you need me to keep being supportive and just listen?" Giving the other person control over how the conversation proceeds is an instrumental step in helping them work through their anxiety.
4. Active Listening
This may seem totally obvious, but I can't tell you how often I hear from clients that they wish their loved ones would pay better attention when they were talking about how they feel. Often, people speak about getting the sense that their loved ones are "burnt out" by their anxiety and don't want to hear about it anymore.
Active listening means that we are really hearing and paying attention to what the other person is telling us. We aren't playing around on our phone or half watching a sports game on tv. We are giving the other person our undivided attention. This sends the message that what they are saying is important and matters.
5. Make A Plan
This is perhaps the most crucial piece of advice that I can offer you. Often, when we try to make a plan for how to intervene in the moment, our anxiety tells us all of the reasons why that particular intervention won't work. Instead, have a conversation with your loved one in a calm moment when they are not anxious. Ask them what works well for them and what doesn't. Make a list of coping skills that they would like you to remind them to use.
The purpose of this is twofold. Firstly, it gives the person control over what their support looks like in the moment. They are able to articulate exactly what they need based on their lived experiences. Ultimately, they are the expert on how they feel and what works for them. We need to treat them as that expert, rather than guessing or assuming what will work.
Secondly, it gives you a playbook to work from. You no longer need to guess and hope that you've chosen the correct strategy to help them. Your loved one has literally given you exactly what you need to support them through their anxiety.
I hope that these strategies were helpful! Feel free to post questions or comments below!