Johns Hopkins Medicine
All of us worry and get scared from time to time. But those with anxiety may feel consumed by fears of things that might seem irrational to others. It can be hard to relate to these concerns, and as a result, many people don’t know how to best help someone with anxiety.
“People are often dismissive of people experiencing anxiety,” says Joseph McGuire, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist with Johns Hopkins Medicine. “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. So it’s important to be sensitive to what the person with anxiety is going through, even if it doesn’t make sense to you.”
It’s distressing to watch a loved one experience panic attacks and face anxiety every day, but there are things you can do to help. It starts with recognizing the signs of excessive worry and understanding the best ways to support your loved one.
Anxiety disorder is the most common mental health condition in the United States, affecting up to 18% of the population. Knowing the signs of anxiety can help you realize when someone you love is having fearful thoughts or feelings. Symptoms vary from person to person but can be broken into three categories:
Some of the physical symptoms your loved one may report feeling include:
Perhaps what you’ll notice most is your loved one’s behaviors. Common anxiety behaviors include:
Typical responses to someone with anxiety are often unhelpful. Here are actions you should avoid:
It’s common to want to help your loved one avoid painful situations by going out of your way to eliminate the cause for concern. “On the surface, this seems really thoughtful and sweet,” says McGuire. “But anxiety doesn’t usually go away. Over time, if people continually avoid facing difficult situations, the anxiety grows and special requests for accommodations get bigger.”
If you continue to modify your behavior or the environment to accommodate your loved one’s anxiety, this can unintentionally enable the anxiety to persist and grow. Avoiding difficult situations doesn’t give your loved one the opportunity to overcome fears and learn how to master anxiety. Instead, it makes their world smaller as what they are able to do becomes more and more limited by their growing anxiety.
“It’s hard to see a loved one having an anxiety attack,” says McGuire. “But in the moment, there’s not too much you can do to shorten the duration or noticeably lower the intensity of a panic attack.”
“When you start to notice your loved one withdrawing from activities that they used to enjoy, you don’t have to cover up your concern. Instead, it can be helpful to approach your loved one in a warm and positive way,” says McGuire. “You can start a dialogue by saying you’ve noticed certain behavior changes.”
For example: “Hey, I noticed that you’ve been avoiding going to [insert location] and other social gatherings. Can you share with me what caused the change?” Then, depending on how the conversation goes, you might ask if they think they need some help or support in coping with their anxiety.
Learn more about treatment options offered in our Anxiety Disorders Program.
There are two primary treatments for individuals with anxiety:
During therapy, continue to show your support by:
“If you’re concerned about a loved one’s anxiety, early treatment is ideal,” says McGuire. “The longer you let anxiety or any sort of mental or physical health condition go without intervention, the harder it can be to recover.”