We all have this innate desire to make someone feel better with our words. It’s a curious one. Brené Brown says in her description of what empathy is, that, “rarely does a response make something better.” One of those pearls that force you to stop and think.. “Oh yeah, I guess that’s true actually. Yeah. So… why do I still scrabble around for something to say as if I’m in a political debate and I must must MUST have an answer to this person’s struggle.”
Ultimately, people don’t want to feel alone in their pain. Perhaps, it’s just the person behind the response itself that matters. Even the most incredibly awful condolences can be accepted merely by the thought that the person meant well. At least they said SOMETHING. At least they’re here.
Yet there are things that you can say that can help an anxious person. When I’m suffering with an anxiety attack the support of people around me matters. It doesn’t make the anxiety disappear but it can help me onto the right track to deal with it myself.
1. “I don’t know what to say”
Start from a place of recognising that you can’t switch their anxiety off immediately with some words. Put more weight on your presence rather than your wisdom. If someone asks you for advice, don’t be annoying and sidestep it. But take care when advising that you’re not coming from a place of thinking there is an easy answer. Especially if you’ve never suffered with acute anxiety yourself. Ask what you can do. Engage with empathy and try to connect with how they are feeling. This almost always involves…
2. “I’m here and I’m listening”
Often people don’t say everything that’s going on inside them. Often people label one feeling as something other than what it is until they talk about it. Often people don’t know why they are feeling a certain way until they start to verbalise and explain it. There are many reasons why talking can impact how one is feeling. Hence the reason why counselling is often referred to as ‘talking therapy’. It all goes back to Freud who, as well as coming up with some rather creepy notions, discovered that simply talking provided healing in and of itself.
Be available for your friend to talk it out. That’s a wonderful gift to anyone.
3. “You’re great”
This is an element of anxiety I’m just getting my head around. Negative self-talk heightens anxiety. Being a perfectionist heightens anxiety because it can only produce a perpetual fear of failure. One of the wonderful things I learned through counselling was to talk to myself like I would to a friend. If I spoke to my friends the way I sometimes thought about myself, well I’d be lonelier than Eleanor Oliphant. Big your anxious friend up more than usual. But in a subtle way that they can accept as truth.
4. “Have you thought about counselling or psychiatry?”
Anxiety and panic disorders can be overcome. Medication can help provide some stability but dealing with the root causes of anxiety can require some expert help as well as some good self-help. I’ll never forget when I first became ill and I contacted a psychologist I saw after both my bereavements. He had moved away and I was asking for recommendations. He said to me that he was sorry I was experiencing panic attacks but a few simple techniques can “send them packing”. I find the simplicity of that statement so reassuring.
Yes, it requires hard work and patience to put those techniques into practice to the point that you are fully recovered. Yet the simplicity of his statement acknowledges that there is a chemical reaction going on in your body that can be changed. Getting down to those hard facts about anxiety can help you regain some control when you feel like you’ve just gone completely bonkers and are riddled with many illnesses and will die. People around you who remind you that they are just feelings that will pass and you CAN get better is essential. Sometimes you need to hear that from someone who has studied the human brain before you feel convinced.
A good counsellor or psychiatrist will help you get to the bottom of why YOU are suffering with anxiety and what you need to change and how. Go for it.
5. “You’ve got this”
If your friend has done the whole therapy thing and has a little toolbox of CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy), mindfulness, and breathing techniques, why not get them to tell you what it is they have to do so you can remind them. When your body has kicked into fight or flight it is very easy for your negative thought cycle to worsen and all the techniques to go flying up into the abyss like a helium-filled balloon. You lose all faith in their ability to work and your ability to effectively put them into practice.
What would be nice is if your counsellor or psychiatrist could follow you about all the time and coach you through your daily life. I couldn’t afford that and I don’t think they’d want to. Shame. I think if my husband started ‘coaching’ me in a coach-y sort of way I might start imagining giving him a swift back-hander. But to have him or a friend say, you know what you need to do and you’re strong, you’ve GOT THIS, could make all the difference.
Do you suffer with anxiety? What’s the most helpful thing someone has said to you?
Writer, wife, mother of two and project coordinator for a social care service. In recovery from anxiety and perfectionism. I try to be creative at least once a week on what I call #createnight. I paint, draw and write stories, poems, pieces of creative writing and articles. Avid reader and believer in the power of stories to change everything.