So your friend’s told you that she or he is struggling with an anxiety disorder. What now?
First things first: it sucks for them. It really, really does. They’re tense, stressed, and will probably feel like they’re losing their minds on a daily basis.
The second most important thing: you don’t need to change everything. Don’t suddenly start treating them like they’re delicate flowers.
They’re not. They’re tough. And they’re the same friend you had before. They’re just struggling.
Here are some easy ways you can make things a little easier for them.
1. Text back
You don’t need to be texting non-stop, and it’s perfectly reasonable to not have a constant stream of conversation when you’re busy.
But try not to suddenly stop conversations or leave questions hanging. We will worry that we’ve said something to make you hate us. We will also worry you’ve died.
2. And if you’re supposed to meet them, please arrive on time
Or at least let them know you’re going to be late. Seriously, we will think you’ve been murdered.
3. Ask them what helps them deal with a panic attack
Important: Ask them this when they’re not actually having a panic attack.
Find out if they’ll need a glass of water, time outside, or a hug. That way the next time they get hit by an attack you’ll be prepared with stuff you know works best for them (because the same things don’t help everyone).
4. If they’re getting obsessive, let them check once, but not again
If you’re hanging out and your friend keeps wanting to get up to check that they’ve actually turned the oven off, it’s fine to let them go once to actually check. But after that, try to reassure them that yes, they did actually turn it off, and remind them that they just checked that they had two minutes ago.
Sometimes we get into a cycle of obsessive thinking that doesn’t make sense. If you let us keep checking, we’ll keep going back for hours. Sometimes we need a dose of rational, clear-headed thought.
5. Try to be careful about the way you use words like ‘panic attack’ and ‘anxiety’
Maybe don’t say you’re having a ‘massive panic attack’ when you’re not. It makes us feel like you don’t take what we’re going through seriously.
6. Don’t constantly ask: ‘but what’s WRONG?’
We get that you’re concerned. But sometimes there’s nothing bad happening – we’re just feeling anxious.
If you keep pressing the issue you’re just reminding us that we’re feeling anxious and upset for no reason. Which makes us feel like we’re crazy.
So yeah. Try not to do that.
7. Listen when they need to talk
On that note, sometimes we ARE feeling anxious and upset for a situational reason. Please do ask us what’s happening, and listen to us if we need to open up. It helps us so much more than you know.
8. Remind them that it really is okay to say no
Sometimes they might not feel up to coming to your big social gathering, but they feel too uncomfortable saying no. Remind your friend that it’s really not a big deal if they need to skip this one.
9. Propose alternative outcomes
When your friend’s panicking about a situation and imagining all the ways something can go wrong, it’ll help loads if you chip in with more realistic alternative outcomes.
We need your logical thinking. Help us out.
10. Learn the signs that they’re starting to feel anxious
If you can see your friend clenching their fists or nervously looking around the room, you can step in and remove them from the situation if they need it – or just make sure they know you’re around if they need you.
11. If they need to leave a social situation, let them know it’s okay
Or go with them, if it’s not going to ruin your night too much.
12. Don’t draw attention to their panic attacks
Pretty much the worst thing you can do when you’re friend’s having a panic attack: start panicking too, or loudly ask if they’re panicking.
We want to go somewhere and get it all out in private. Help us quietly.
13. Offer to tag along to things when they say they really need you
You don’t have to be their constant buddy, obviously. But if it’s a really high stress social situation, it’s nice for you to offer, at least.
14. Encourage them to try things
It’s easy for us to let our anxiety hold us back and make us stay in a very rigid comfort zone. Be the person who gives us a bit of a shake when we need it – tell us how much fun we’ll have doing something new or all the stuff we’ll learn.
We’ll hate you a bit for it at first, but we’ll thank you later.
15. Check in about their mental health
It’s really easy for us to keep stuff quiet. We don’t want to bother you or seem like we’re moaning.
So every now and then, just check in and ask how we’re really doing.
16. Encourage them to get professional help if they need it
There are some things that people can’t – and shouldn’t – handle alone. If it’s time for your friend to get help, be the voice of reason and encourage them to get it.
17. Try not to get frustrated if your friend is struggling to do something that seems simple
We know it must be annoying when we’re suddenly too scared to buy cinema tickets or back out of something at the last minute.
Encourage us to follow through on stuff when you know we can do it, but please try not to get annoyed or ask why we’re being stupid. I promise, we’re already kind of hating ourselves and feeling like a failure. We really appreciate your patience and understanding.
18. Create little traditions and rituals
Anxious people love traditions. Even if it’s a movie night every Friday, it’ll give us something calming to look forward to.
19. Don’t call them crazy
20. Let them know that you don’t hate them
Not non-stop, obviously. But if you’re having a disagreement, or you’re really busy and won’t be around for a while, you’ll get major bonus points if you send a quick text explaining that you definitely don’t secretly hate them and everything’s okay.
21. Try not to create suspense or mystery
Sending a ‘we need to talk’ or ‘I have something to tell you’ text is pretty much one of the worst things you can do to your anxious friend. We will obsess over all the possible awful things you’re going to tell us.
22. Don’t treat them like they’re delicate little flowers
I get the irony of this advice given all the tips in this post. But these are just extra things you can do to help out your friends with anxiety.
Please don’t take it too far and start answering stuff for us, thinking we can’t do things, or protecting us from every little thing. We’re tough, promise – and we’re still the same person you were friends with before our anxiety issues started happening.
23. And never be afraid to tell us when you’re struggling with stuff
We’re not too fragile to support you. Open up. Tell us when you need help and we’ll be there.
24. Be their cheerleader
We doubt ourselves all the time. We don’t think we can do things.