How to Support Someone with Stress or Anxiety

Posted on October 8, 2021

How to Support Someone with Stress or Anxiety

Watching somebody you love struggle with stress and anxiety can be challenging. Especially when we don’t know the first thing about how to help them through it. With everything, a willingness to learn and understand is the best place to start. With that in mind, let’s unpack what stress and anxiety are.

Anxiety is a general term used to describe a variety of mental health disorders. If we are to simplify what it means for someone who feels anxious, it can be categorised as an intense sense of panic or dread that comes in waves. Some common symptoms of anxiety include irregular heartbeat, dizziness, elevated breathing, low mood, worry and an intense feeling of being watched or judged. Of course, there are levels to every individual’s experience and for some symptoms will manifest more regularly than for others, and not everyone’s symptoms will be the same. One thing that does seem to remain quite constant is that symptoms can be triggered by events and changes to routine.

Stress, on the other hand, is harder to pin down. There is no medical diagnosis of stress and therefore no rigid definition of what it is. Generally, we come to understand stress in relation to events in a person’s life that put them under an intense amount of pressure. Things like moving house or deadlines at work or school. It can manifest itself in behaviour as a series of mood swings, irritability, insomnia and worry. As such, it can be easy to see how stress and anxiety can often come hand in hand. Both triggered by big events and both having an over-bearing impact on someone’s ability to perform daily tasks.

One thing to point out here, is you can learn as much as possible about stress and anxiety in a general sense and think that you know enough to then do the utmost to help the person you care about who is struggling. However, without talking to your friend about how their symptoms or troubles and how it is you can help them, you don’t want to run the risk of coming across like you are trying to diagnose rather than support. As a friend, your role in the lives of the people we care about is a supportive one, and a lot of the time all we need to do is listen to and show up for our friends. The following advice should be taken with this in mind.

There are still some things that you can consider when it comes to being there for a friend. Since major events can be a powerful trigger, it can be helpful to be aware of any moments of instability in your loved one’s life, as they are likely to need more patience during these periods. Along the same vein, helping your friend to identify triggers could be a good way to help them to pro-actively prepare for potentially stressful situations. Like when driving a car, seeing signs that the road will sharply bend gives us the time to adjust how we are driving to handle it in the best way. If we know a certain event can make us feel anxious the instinct is to try to avoid it but having someone by your side who is confident to get you through it can be a powerful tool.

That isn’t always going to be the case and plans will at times get cancelled with little notice and it is important to remember that people who suffer with anxiety don’t cancel plans for no reason. Anxiety can come up unexpectedly and intensely. Labelling someone who is struggling with their mental health as ‘flaky’ or ‘undependable’ can make them feel worse and could escalate their situation.  Instead, reassure them that you are still their friend and that you haven’t changed your opinion of them just because of their anxiety or stress. It may seem obvious but for people with anxiety it can be hard to know where you stand with people, since your anxiety is constantly telling you that people are judging you.

All this considered, it is also important that you recognise your own boundaries. Although you feel like you want to do the most possible to help your loved one, if it is starting to have a negative impact on your mental health it may be a good idea to take a step back. Don’t try to take too much on alone, reach out to other friends, family or professional who can help. Remember that you are not a registered mental health care professional and although you can support your friend, if you think they might benefit more from professional help then encourage them to seek this kind of help. Making sure you’re in a fit state of mind can have a positive impact in helping your friend.

Other ways to help a friend is by doing light exercise together like yoga, which could give them the confidence and skills to help manage their stress and anxiety. You could also suggest going on regular walks together, doing activities you both enjoy and using meditation apps (like calm or headspace) or going to meditation classes together. Finally, as long as you approach everything with understanding and patience, then you will be able to provide the best possible support for the people that you love. Remember there is always professional help out there if they start to feel worse and should consult their doctor or healthcare practitioner.