How to Support an Anxious Friend
For most parents, raising children brings a bundle of worries, such as “Will I be a good parent?” “How do I balance work and family life?” and “How do I find a trusted sitter?” While these worries aren’t uncommon, left unchecked, they can spiral into a feeling of doom, known as anxiety.
From a racing heart and a churning stomach to muscle tension and insomnia, anxiety brings physical discomfort that’s impossible to ignore. Not only is anxiety physically painful, but it also brings unwanted, racing thoughts, such as “What if something bad happens to my baby?” or “What if I drop the baby?”
Seeing a friend grapple with anxiety, kick-starts empathy, and our desire to offer support. “Don’t worry, everything will be okay,” are common words of reassurance. However, this sentiment isn’t always comforting. Why? Because fear-based anxiety spins a different narrative, which makes the person see the world as unsafe. Because of this, encouraging an anxious parent to “calm down,” or “relax,” might not validate their distress. In fact, it may make matters worse. “Don’t tell me to relax!” can be a typical response, along with “If I knew how to calm down, I’d do it!”
What’s a better alternative? “Engaging in a practice called ‘Active Listening,’ can help support anxious parents,” says Michelle Cilia, a psychotherapist in San Francisco.
Replace Advice with Listening
According to Cilia, “Active Listening” requires us to replace action-packed advice like, “Exercise is a great way to manage anxiety!” with listening. Not that there’s anything wrong with offering supportive suggestions, but anxiety can be paralyzing, which may make it difficult for an anxious person to take action.
That being said, “listening” instead of “fixing” can help suffering friends feel heard. Cilia suggests replacing advice-driven words with something like: “I can see you’re suffering, I’m here to listen.” Letting an anxious friend share their troubles aloud can distill any shame they may feel about their struggles.
Ask Open-Ended Questions
Another useful tip, when asking your friend questions, aim to serve up ‘open-ended’ inquiries. Close-ended questions, such as “Do you feel worried because parenting is hard?” invite one-word answers, which can lead to conversational dead-ends. On the other hand, open-ended questions, such as “What’s worrying you right now?” invites your friend to tell you more, which can be one way to better understand their distress.
With over 40 million Americans suffering from an anxiety disorder, your friend may need to speak to a mental health professional. But before you pick up the phone and call a therapist–ask permission. “I can see you’re in pain, would it be helpful if I offered additional resources?” can be a great question to ask.
If your friend wants to see a therapist, primary care physicians can screen for anxiety disorders and recommend therapists who are trained to help. For parents with infants, hospital programs often provide “new parent support groups,” or in-house mental health services, especially during the first year postpartum.
Not all anxious friends will be ready to talk to a professional. If your friend shies away from therapy, ask how you can help.
Keep checking in
Suffering friends and busy parents may be hesitant to reach out. Because of this, it can be easy to misinterpret their silence as a sign that everything’s okay. However, even if it’s hard to put pain into words, anxious parents often appreciate the support.
Even if you don’t see your friend weekly, sending a text message that says, “I know you’re going through a tough time, and I’m thinking of you,” or “Do you need to talk?” can make a world of difference.
Keep in mind that talking about anxiety or any emotional concern takes courage. Meet your friend’s vulnerability by opening up to them, too. Now that doesn’t mean you should let your woes take center stage, but saying something like, “I’m not sure what anxiety feels like to you, but when I’m anxious, I tend to…”
In the end, supporting an anxious friend isn’t as complicated as it might seem. Compassion, connection, and concern can go a long way, and these three things can help your friend realize that their feelings matter.