Supporting someone with anxiety
Supporting someone with anxiety
Do you have a loved one experiencing anxiety? Do you need advice on supporting someone with anxiety?
It can be a debilitating situation: you see their suffering and it’s heartbreaking. You would do anything in your power to lessen it for them. Often that means giving into the temptation to step in and do things on their behalf. You try to shield them from the situations that might trigger their anxiety.
However, this isn’t necessarily a helpful strategy.
You are, of course, acting with the absolute best of intentions. However, protecting your loved one can prevent them from developing the skills they need to overcome their anxiety.
So, how can you continue to support and protect them, without getting in the way of their recovery? I have a few strategies to get you started.
Supporting someone with anxiety: Mirror, mirror…
It might sound counter-intuitive, but the first thing you can do to support someone who’s experiencing anxiety is to look inward. You need to manage both your own internal reactions and your external behaviours.
You see, one of the interesting things about the brain is that it tends to mirror other brains around it. That’s one of the reasons that you might start to feel anxious when your loved one does. You might even anticipate that they might experience anxiety symptoms. If they note your worry or panic, it only reinforces their feeling that this is a situation to be feared.
The good news is that you can turn this phenomenon on its head. You can use it to reduce anxiety for both of you.
If you learn to control your reactions in anxiety-inducing situations, you effectively present your loved one — consciously and subconsciously — with a template that they can start to replicate. By behaving in a more calm and measured way, to some degree, you’ll trigger neurons in their brain. These will begin to subtly change their own relationship with those situations.
And that’s a tremendous start in helping you both feel more in control.
Adjust your breathing: the 4-4-6 method
How do you actually put this into practice?
The easiest way to start managing your own reactions is to slow everything down.
When we slow down, we move from the reactive brain to the responsive brain. This is the part of the brain that makes more informed choices about situations. It looks at the longer-term implications of our behaviour rather than simply reacting and doing whatever we can to make an uncomfortable situation disappear as quickly as possible.
You can do this in a variety of ways. You could, for example, concentrate on slowing your movements. Or you could pay more attention to your speech and intentionally slow your pace if you find that nerves are making you talk more quickly.
But, by far the most effective way to switch to the responsive brain is to focus on your breathing. You’ll have noticed that your breathing is one of the first ways that anxious feelings show up physically. Therefore, it’s a powerful way to get your immediate responses back under control.
To regain control of your breathing, try the 4-4-6 pattern: drop your shoulders and breathe in for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of four, and then breathe out for a count of six. By doing that you not only start to inform how you breathe, but you also influence which emotional and physiological responses occur in the body. Essentially, you’re interrupting the brain’s natural expectation that this is going to be an anxiety-inducing situation; you instantly feel calmer and more capable of making informed, rational choices.
Not only is this an excellent way to calm your own mind but, as we’ve already seen, you’ll kick start that neuron-mirroring process that’ll influence your loved one’s reaction to the situation too.
Supporting someone with anxiety is a balancing act. It’s not just about learning how to ease their suffering in the moment… it’s also about learning how to avoid prolonging their relationship with their anxiety.
As we’ve already seen, avoiding anxiety-inducing situations isn’t a productive strategy; and the neuron-mirroring strategies we’ve already covered are only a start.
What we need to do now is to figure out how to continue the exposure to potentially tricky situations, but without throwing either of you into the deep end. The best way to do that is to look at what we call the ‘exposure ladder’.
Let’s look at an example…
Let’s imagine you have a phobia of dogs. In this case, you might look at developing a series of different challenges relating to this phobia; step one would be something that generates the least anxiety, such as looking at a picture of a dog. From there you might try listening to a recording of a dog barking or look at a dog from the other side of the road.
Over a period of time, you would work towards standing closer to dogs. Eventually you would hopefully reach the stage where you can stroke a dog. This is a form of graded exposure — a gradual way to start confronting a fear.
Naturally, it can be a daunting process for the person with the phobia. However, there are ways to make it more manageable and to help change their relationship to these activities. The 4-4-6 breathing technique is a great place to start and it’s important to remain flexible too.
For example, you do want to make sure that you’re continually pushing your loved one just a little out of their comfort zone and if they find one of the stages of exposure particularly easy, then you skip on to the next one.
Take things slow
If they struggle at any point, you might have to jump back a stage. Spend more time helping them become comfortable with that. Or, you might want to review what happened during that particularly difficult stage and see what you could do differently. Maybe they could try to focus more on their breathing or on slowing down their movements. Or maybe they could try just glancing up more often. This helps to take in the wider environment as a way of interrupting the brain’s expectations. This helps to convince them that it that this isn’t an anxiety-inducing situation.
Remaining objective will be hard for them in the moment so it’s incredibly helpful if you can observe their behaviour as they move through the stages, and provide support and feedback afterwards when their rational brain has kicked in again and they’re feeling calmer. This way, you can both move from judging these situations as purely success or failure and start looking at them as a process.
Supporting someone with anxiety – Slow progress is still progress
Throughout the process there will be times when it feels like you’re hardly making any progress at all — and times when you even feel as if you’re going backwards.
When those feelings kick in, it’s important that you both remember that slow progress is still progress and that even when things don’t exactly go to plan, you can still learn from the process even as you tweak and refine it.
Gradually, you’ll be able to reduce your role, stepping back and letting them work through their anxieties, safe in the knowledge that they still have your care and support whenever they need it.
And the great thing is, although you might initially be tackling their anxiety in one specific area, the benefits they reap won’t just apply to that one situation, or that single phobia — the strategies they learn, the progress they make, and the confidence they gain can fan out into other areas of their life in which their anxiety has been holding them back. This can provide such a feeling of empowerment it acts as a launch pad for them in many different ways. Supporting someone with anxiety can give them a whole new lease of life.
Of course, they aren’t the only one to benefit from this new lease of life — by helping them develop the strategies and the confidence in their ability to manage their anxiety, they become less dependent on you and you can relax knowing that they you don’t need to worry about how they’re going to cope in previously worrying situations.
Find out more
If you want to find out more about supporting someone with anxiety, please do get in touch. If you’ve already started trying some of the strategies I’ve shared recently, please do post below. I’d love to hear how you’re getting on.