How to Help A Friend With Anxiety (From People Who Have Anxiety)

Here are 5 tips my patients tell me help the most. Take it from them. Not me.

“I’m doing just fine,” explained my patient. It was late March 2020 and our lives had just been upended by COVID-19. I was relieved to hear she was okay considering the unbridled disruption, uncertainty, and fear that pervaded the early days of the pandemic. Our weekly Monday appointments were cancelled indefinitely and I had not seen my patient in over two weeks.

“Thanks to years of therapy, I have lots of tools in my toolbox to deal with constant worry,” she continued. “It’s like I have been preparing for this moment all my life.”

Having lived with anxiety for as long as she could remember, she found herself in the curious position of giving advice to friends who were experiencing overwhelming anxiety for the very first time. “After all these years, I have become an expert in uncertainty. I know what has helped me so I know how to be there for them.”

Most of us know someone who struggles with anxiety and knowing what to say and how to help isn’t always obvious. As a psychiatrist, I have treated many people who struggle with anxiety on a daily basis but I have learned as much, if not more, from my patients who live with anxiety as I have from training and textbooks.

Here are 5 tips my patients tell me help the most. Take it from them. Not me.

1 – Listen Deeply

Before offering any words of wisdom, hear them out. Resist the urge to interrupt, or to reassure, or to tell them they are overreacting. Give the person your full attention and compassion so that they feel understood and heard.

2 – Check In

Anxiety can be a very lonely experience so showing up means a lot. Give them a call, take them for a walk, or suggest watching a movie together. Be responsive when they call or text. Remind the person that they are loved and that you are there for them.

3 – Ask Them What They Need

“Just because meditation works for my anxiety doesn’t mean it works for everyone’s anxiety,” explained my patient. Instead of assuming you know what’s best or have all the answers, follow their lead. Anxiety manifests differently in everyone. Respect their experience.

4 – Be a Tailwind, Not a Mechanic

As tempting as it is to want to “fix” someone, remember that a person with anxiety is not broken. Support their goals, celebrate their wins, and remind them of their strengths. Instead of focusing on problems, tap into their capabilities.

5 – Set Boundaries

Setting limits doesn’t mean you are a bad friend, it means you are human and have your own life too. It’s okay to say, “I love you. I’m in the middle of something. Can we chat tomorrow morning?” If someone is asking for more than you can give, resentment sets in. Be open and honest. Clarity and communication are antidotes for guilt.

Bottom Line: Being there for someone with anxiety is about supporting their needs, not what you think they need.

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman