How To Help Someone With Anxiety, According to Mental Health Experts

Photographed by Jackie Harriet.
Forty million. That's roughly how many people in the U.S. have an anxiety disorder; about 18% of the population. So chances are, you know someone (or are someone) who experiences anxiety.
If you live with someone or are close with someone who has an anxiety disorder, you may not be sure how you can support them, especially if they're experiencing a flare-up in symptoms.
That's why we put together this expert-backed guide. People are unique, so what one person with anxiety finds helpful may not work with another. But these tips offer a good starting place for anyone looking to help a friend cope.

Acknowledge and accept their anxiety

"People are often dismissive of people experiencing anxiety," said Joseph McGuire, PhD, a pediatric psychologist, in an interview for the Johns Hopkins Medicine website. "With other medical illnesses, you may be able to see physical symptoms. But with anxiety, you don’t necessarily see what the person is dealing with."
That means people with anxiety have likely heard comments that made their struggles seem invalid or small. (Think: "Can't you just calm down?" or "This is not a big deal.") Simply acknowledging that you hear and believe them when they talk about their symptoms or struggles can be powerful. "It's important to be sensitive to what the person with anxiety is going through, even if it doesn’t make sense to you," Dr. McGuire said.

Take care of yourself first

If you're feeling tense, stressed, or overwhelmed, you won't be able to help your friend — in fact, they may pick up on and internalize those feelings. The most loving action you can take is to give yourself the time and space you need to restore your own equilibrium before trying to lend a hand to others. "It is difficult to help others if you are in significant distress. Make sure you are engaging in self-care strategies," Neda Gould, PhD, a clinical psychologist and director of the Mindfulness Program at Johns Hopkins, tells Refinery29.
"A calm demeanor communicates understanding and creates the most powerful connection," adds Dean Aslinia, PhD, a licensed mental health expert. "While you might have some amazing strategy, without the calm presence, it will be of little value."
You never have to feel guilty about finding and enforcing your own mental health boundaries. As the saying goes, don't set yourself on fire to keep others warm.

Ask how you can help

Again, people with anxiety may receive help differently. A good way to learn how you can best support a friend, family member, or roommate is to ask. If possible, approach them when they're not experiencing acute anxiety symptoms to ask if there's anything you can do to support them in general, or specifically when they're in the midst of a spiral.
But you can also check in when your friend is feeling anxious. When they're venting, "Ask the person if they would like some suggestions for a problem. Sometimes they just want to be heard," Dr. Gould says.

Practice active listening

A common misstep well-meaning friends and family members tend to make when trying to reassure someone with anxiety is to say something like, "It's going to be okay."
Your intention is good, says Dr. Aslinia. But your friend may know, logically, that everything is going to be okay, even while they're still trying to quiet the alarm bells going off in their brain. Trying to explain that to someone while in the midst of symptoms can feel exhausting or stressful. "You could create even more anxiety as you will become seen as yet another threat they need to neutralize," notes Dr. Aslinia.
Instead, try to just listen. "Being an active, nonjudgemental listener can help create space for someone who is anxious and help them feel validated," Dr. Gould says. It's human nature to want to offer solutions, so don't beat yourself up if that's your instinct. But practice staying quiet, letting your friend speak, and acknowledging what they're saying without trying to fix it.

Start asking questions

In addition to listening, one simple way to help someone in the midst of an anxiety spiral is to ask calming questions. Dr. Aslinia suggests: "How are you feeling?"; "What's the worst thing that could happen?"; "Do you have a plan for this?"; and "Tell me what happens next," or "Walk me through your plan."
"Often, people struggling with anxiety fear the unknowns of what might happen," Dr. Aslinia says. "Help them process those fears with questions." That way, a clear path will begin to form on how they'll deescalate their anxiety."

Enlist professional help

Recognize that there's a limit to what you can offer. "While your help and presence might be great, if your loved one is constantly battling anxiety throughout the day, it’s time to reach out to a primary care physician or mental health professional," says Dr. Aslinia.
In general, anytime someone's anxiety is interfering with their daily life, it's a good time to suggest seeking help.

More from Wellness

R29 Original Series