When one of our friends is struggling with anxiety, it can leave us worried about their well-being and disappointed that we’re not able to see each other as much as we’d like. It can also affect our friendship, especially if we aren’t sure how to support them when they really need someone.
Knowing how to support a friend who’s dealing with anxiety can definitely be confusing. We might have a hard time relating to what they’re going through, or we might be concerned about saying the right (or wrong) thing. And it’s not always clear whether we should talk about their struggles and encourage them to face their fears, or give them some space and focus on being a fun distraction.
While there’s no rulebook for helping a friend with anxiety, there are things you can do to show your support and make the situation a little easier for both of you.
Do your homework and really listen
If anxiety is something that’s foreign to you, a good place to start is to learn what it feels like and how challenging it can be. It can also help to read up on whether your friend is experiencing anxiety that’s expected or typical or if it’s bordering on something more serious. Not only will you better understand what your friend might be going through, but you’ll also feel confident that you’re able to give the kind of support that’s actually helpful. If you have struggled with anxiety, it might make it easier to empathize. But everyone experiences anxiety differently, and we can be biased by our own experiences.
That’s why no matter how much reading you’ve done or personal experience you have, the best thing to do is to ask your friend about their anxiety. What do they worry about? What does anxiety feel like to them? What would they like to do if they didn’t feel afraid or held back? And, most importantly, what kind of support are they actually looking for? Asking these questions in an open, non-judgmental, and even curious way will help you figure out the kinds things that are helpful and can be a type of support in and of itself.
Empathize and normalize
As much as possible, it helps to normalize what your friend is going through. Instead of throwing around statistics, validate your friend’s feelings and experiences. Let them know that you understand that anxiety is very real and very difficult, and that it makes sense that they’re struggling (e.g., “Of course you’re feeling anxious. That’s a scary situation.”). Even if their specific worry seems silly or unrealistic to you, chances are you can find something to validate, like how tough it must be to worry about the future or how uncomfortable the physical symptoms of anxiety must be.
Sharing your experience can be a great way to make your friend feel supported, but it’s probably best to avoid saying things like: “I know exactly what you’re feeling.” Instead, share that you relate to how hard it can be and show an interest in hearing more about your friend’s personal experience.
Be careful not to minimize
Despite our best intentions, minimizing the situation or our friend’s anxiety is rarely helpful. We might think that pointing out that things aren’t so bad, scary, or dangerous is a way to be supportive or calm them down. But when someone is anxious, they are rarely receptive to this kind of feedback. On some level, our friends usually know their anxiety isn’t totally rational, so this “reality check” isn’t giving them any new information and can feel insensitive. Saying things like “calm down,” “relax,” or “it’s not a big deal” can also come across as invalidating and make your friend feel like you’re blaming them for being overly sensitive, even if they’re meant to be supportive.
We all vary in terms of what sets us off. So it really is best to ask your friend if there are any words they find particularly insensitive, invalidating, or triggering. At the same time, getting too caught up in saying the “right thing” can hold you back from saying anything at all, which often feels worse. Offering your genuine words of support is generally the way to go, as long as you are open to feedback about what actually does or does not help.
Watch out for reassurance seeking and co-rumination
When a friend is going through a hard time, we might think the best way to be supportive is to be there every time they’re looking for a listening ear or advice. Not only is this unrealistic, it’s actually counter-productive. It’s easy to get caught in a cycle of reassurance seeking when a friend repeatedly calls us to get our take on things or words of encouragement. Questions like “Is it normal that I’m worried?” or “Would you feel anxious?” or “Are you sure you’re not mad at me?” can be signs that our friend is looking for reassurance, especially if they come up repeatedly. And giving in to this kind of reassurance-seeking actually maintains our friend’s anxiety over time.
Similarly, repeatedly discussing or rehashing difficult situations (e.g., conflict at work or a fight with a romantic partner) without coming up with an active plan or problem-solving (a process known as co-rumination) can happen. Even though these kinds of discussions might bring you closer together, they increase symptoms of anxiety and depression in the long run.
Instead of spinning in circles (and feeling like more of a therapist than a friend), feel free to answer your friend’s questions and listen to their venting initially. But follow this up by sharing that you want what’s best for them and that includes pointing out when your conversations are no longer helpful.
Help them overcome avoidance
When a friend is feeling anxious, they often withdraw from certain people, places, or situations. They might avoid going to larger social events or even cancel plans that the two of you have. This isn’t just an issue for your friendship, avoidance actually maintains and reinforces anxiety. That’s why one of the best ways to support a friend who’s dealing with anxiety is to help them face their fears and overcome their avoidance. Instead of pressuring them, ask them where they’d like to start and how you can make it easier. Helping them come up with their own plan for exposing themselves to the situations that make them nervous will allow them to feel empowered and supported.
Highlight their strengths and successes
Coping with anxiety is hard. And the moments when your friend is able to overcome their avoidance, catch themselves worrying, or problem-solve without ruminating can and should be celebrated! If you’re struggling to find signs of progress, you can always focus on their effort (e.g., “You’re working so hard,” “You’re really brave for putting yourself out there,” I love how determined you are”). This can help your friend stay motivated. And reminding ourselves of how far they’ve come (or how hard they’re working) can make it easier to continue supporting them.
Make sure they are safe
There might come a time when you’re really worried about your friend’s well-being. Maybe they’re having recurrent panic attacks and you aren’t sure how to help them cope. While these can look really scary, they aren’t dangerous. And the best thing to do is to stay calm, go somewhere quiet, help them slow their breathing, and ask them what they need.
If you’re concerned that your friend seems down or depressed, is coping in unhealthy ways (like by drinking excessively or using drugs), or is thinking about hurting themselves or someone else, it’s best to be upfront. Bringing up your concern doesn’t have to cause problems in your friendship (although be prepared for some resistance). Let your friend know that you care about them and are worried about their well-being. Without going overboard, highlight a few specific changes you’ve noticed. Ask them if it’s something they’ve noticed too and give them a chance to explain their take on things. If you think your friend might benefit from therapy, you can read how to approach this sometimes delicate subject here.
Take care of yourself
Finally, supporting a friend who’s struggling with anxiety isn’t easy. And after a while it can really take a toll on your own well-being. Remember to take care of yourself by making time for self-care and setting boundaries or limits as needed. This might mean changing the way you relate to your friend, like taking time for yourself or spending time with other friends, or setting limits on the kinds of things you talk about or how often you vent to each other. Ultimately, you are there to help your friend, but you aren’t responsible for their well-being. And taking care of yourself will make you a better friend in the long run!