How To Support Your Friend Struggling With Anxiety

The overwhelming feeling that something bad is looming, even though you can’t exactly pinpoint what: anxiety sucks. It’s shitty, it’s debilitating, and watching your mates struggle with it can be rough.

Obviously, when your friend’s in a rut you want to be there for them, but maybe you don’t know what to say, or worry you’ll just exacerbate the problem – the last thing you want to do is make your pal feel worse.

We had a chat to Dr. Luke Martin, psychologist and beyondblue project manager for anxiety, asking what are the best ways of approaching a loved one with anxiety.

How can I tell if my friend is struggling with anxiety?

“There are some tell-tale signs that someone’s struggling with anxiety,” says Dr. Martin.

These are some of the signs to look out for: noticing a change in your friend’s sleeping patterns, them actively avoiding social situations or regular looks of concern and worry are all indicators.

Then there are the changes they might have noticed in themselves. “Anxious thoughts, worries around things that could go wrong, bowel issues, rapid breathing and sweaty palms are all symptoms you mightn’t be able to pick up on straight away”.

Ultimately, the easiest way to tell is to ask – be gentle but direct; no sense in dancing around the subject. Talking about mental health unfortunately isn’t super easy for everyone, so it’s important that your friend knows that you’re coming from a good place while being upfront.

What if I catch my mate mid-anxiety attack?

Panic attacks aren’t anyone’s idea of fun, when you’re in the midst of one it can sometimes prove very difficult to get yourself back out. Experiencing one is scary, but watching someone else’s is almost just as horrifying. The most important thing to remember if you’re the bystander is to remain calm.

“Emotions can be quite contagious, and if you’re calm, there’s a higher chance of your friend calming down,” Says Dr. Martin. “Firstly, help slow down their breathing: during a panic attack you are breathing short and rapidly so get your friend to inhale, hold for three seconds, then exhale, and repeat”.

Another helpful tool is to ask what the problem is that exists in the current moment. Try separating this from the snowballing worries living in their mind that may possibly happen in the future – being able to ground your friend for a few brief moments can be enough to bring them out of it.

It’s important to reassure your buddy that everything will be OK. This time will pass, and what’s happening in this moment can’t hurt them – it’s important they feel safe.

What shouldn’t I do?

If your friend reaches out to you with their problems for assistance, it means they trust you and are asking for your help, so it’s important that you have the right response.

“What we hear from a lot of sufferers of anxiety is that friends and family tend to minimise or lessen what it’s like to have anxiety,” Dr. Martin says. “They say things like ‘don’t worry about it’, or ‘let it go’”.

These aren’t exactly a ground-breaking suggestions, and can often make your friend or loved one feel almost silly or foolish for feeling these very real feelings. It’s important to validate their emotions, and the best way to do this is to educate yourself. An informed friend is a more helpful friend.

Dr. Martin says it’s good to educate yourself and to be there, but at the same time remember you’re not a health professional. “Friends and family might have a role in treatment but their main job is to be emotional and social support, not professional help”.

How do I ask my friend to seek help?

Research shows that the main barrier for seeking help for anxiety is not recognising that what’s happening is in fact, anxiety. Often symptoms are put down to personality traits, reactions to stress or misjudged heart or bowel conditions. But also, we need to acknowledge that for whatever reason, some people may simply be not ready to seek help.

“Staying touch is the most important thing you can do, and hanging around will make them feel less alone,” says Dr. Martin. “Don’t pressure them to talk about it all the time, and if they tell you they aren’t ready to seek help, keep an eye on them and if down the track they’re still struggling you can suggest professional help again”.

After all, if it looks as though things aren’t getting better by doing nothing, they may be more willing to talk to a doctor.

If you or a loved one are struggling with anxiety and wish to seek help, Dr. Martin suggests the first point of contact should be with your GP to sort out a treatment plan.

Anxiety isn’t about being oversensitive, weak or simply not being strong enough to handle certain situations – it’s a health condition like any other and should be treated as such. For more information or a number to call, please visit beyondblue.