How to help yourself, a friend, a spouse, or your child when anxiety spirals
Turning away from and avoiding what scares us the most, oftentimes feels like a great option. If we can avoid what feels negative and unpleasant than temporarily we have some relief. Because fear is powerful! Our thoughts, emotions, and actions respond to our fear response system in order to keep us safe. Fighting it (i.e. avoiding, numbing, etc) prevents us from experiencing fear as simply an emotion, one that we all feel, and is fluid. Meaning fear, like anger, sadness, and joy comes and goes. Emotions are meant to be felt, and the more we embrace and accept them the less hold they have over us. The more we try to prevent, block, or stop feeling something the more it exists.
It is in the how we experience them that we are able to find our relief, and getting through it rather than being stuck.
When we begin to spiral or observe that our friend, spouse, or child is experiencing anxiety, it is difficult to not be swept up in it. We want to acknowledge that the anxiety is there, and have the tools to cope with it. I often hear loved ones say, but it’s not real! Stop worrying! Don’t be scared! It’s all an attempt to be helpful, but to the one on the receiving end it can feel isolating and dismissive. Let’s shift our focus to acknowledging and connecting, rather than pushing and deflecting. Once we feel connected, supported and most of all listened to, we are able to talk down the fear. Here are 3 phrases to try the next time you, or someone you care about encounters anxiety.
1) Instead of “this is all in your head, it’s not real” try “I can see how nervous, worried, and scared you are."
Acknowledge it don’t dismiss it. The feeling is real, treat it as such. Providing labels and names to our emotions gives us something to work with. Oftentimes we misidentify a thought for a feeling. Thoughts fuel our feelings and vice versa. Thoughts can be changed and altered, feelings can not. Feelings come and go and reflect our mood. By identifying what we are experiencing through our language and understanding how it affects us physically, behaviorally, and cognitively then we can start to make some changes.
2) Instead of “don't be scared” try “I am here for you."
The best 5 word phrase, “I am here for you.” Ahhhh sense the relief just seeping in. In the moment we may want to “fix”, when really what we need is to feel heard and understood by another person. We have the solutions to our problems, but oftentimes can’t see them when we are override by fear. When fear takes over, empathy must set in. We seek the safety and trust from another individual that they can be there with us through our storm. We need someone to acknowledge and “be there” with us and not necessarily to fix it in the moment. We can do this for ourselves through kindness and being gentle as opposed to allowing our negative self-talk to take over and make it more difficult to experience.
3) Instead of “just stop worrying and thinking about it" try "Let's do something to help you feel better"
It is really hard to "stop worrying", in fact being told to stop can make things escalate, because we are now focusing on the very thing we need to be stopping. So instead shift the focus of managing the stress around it, and start making changes through your behaviors. Go for a walk, take a trip down the hall to get a glass of water, squeeze a stress ball, meditate for 2 minutes. We want to first deactivate, calm down our response system so that we can begin to utilize our executive functioning, the part of our brain that allows for logic and reason. Oftentimes when fear sets in our logic steps out. Once we feel safe and calm we can then begin to brainstorm and problem solve through it.
I hope you have found this helpful. If you or your loved one is experiencing unmanageable stress or anxiety, please reach out. As a licensed professional I can provide you the support to successfully manage your anxiety and find freedom in letting go.