Whether you’re reading this as someone who is anxious or someone who is looking for ways to help someone who is anxious, you’re going to know how to begin the healing process right here, right now. First and always, I need you to understand that anxiety does not mean someone is broken. Anxiety is far too common and a completely normal biological response. In fact, Anxiety has risen 25% around the world in recent years and especially since Covid. Whether the argument is that it is more readily diagnosed or more people are suffering, the fact remains - there are far too many anxious people out there who need and want help, but who also feel so afraid, so down on themselves, and so helpless that they don’t know where to begin.
This is where you become the hero either to yourself or to someone else.
Whether you are the person who lives each day wondering if it’s your last, or you worry about who you might have upset, or questioning your worth, or you are the person reading this to help your kid who is too afraid to have fun with their friends… Or maybe you’re here for your friend, sister, niece, aunt, uncle, or neighbor who no longer drives themself to the store or the doctor, and who has slowly pulled away from things they used to love, or maybe the coworker you’ve seen wiping tears in the bathroom who is on edge and sometimes downright snappy, YOU are someone who can help!
All it takes is being able to recognize how anxiety might look in people,
To know a few simple ways you can ground and support them,
And an open mind.
Please remember that anxiety does not look the same for every person so while you might feel shaky and hot when you’re anxious, your coworker might begin to shiver and tense up. Your teenager may cry or become suddenly angry, but your sister might people-please to the moon and back. The behaviors and physical symptoms of anxiety are both common and somewhat unique for each person so being able to recognize the more common ways anxiety shows its cards is step one.
My anxiety began when I was in elementary school back in the 80s. There wasn’t a word for it back then, at least not that I knew of and I don’t think my parents had one either. What I did know is that I didn’t feel good. I went to the doctor for a lot of stomach aches or feeling sick, I went to the sick room a lot to lay down to try to sleep or cry because I wanted to go home, and I was full of scary thoughts about everything from my parents safety to tornados, to being really self-conscious. This is how anxiety showed up for me and in hindsight, it makes perfect sense. As a kid, I just tried not to cry and fit in as best as I could when I never felt “okay.”
Kids and teenagers who are anxious may not have the words to describe the feelings. In my experience, I'd describe them more as a swirl of feelings and thoughts. Again, this is not the case for everyone but it is a possibility. Typically kids will express anxiety as fear or worry, but anxiety can also make kids irritable and angry. You might notice that your child is having trouble sleeping or having nightmares. They may also experience physical symptoms like fatigue, headaches, or stomachaches, sometimes nausea. It is also not uncommon for kids not to talk a lot about their symptoms because they know they don’t feel good but it’s not the same feeling as being sick.
Teenagers and adults can do a better job of articulating how they feel but they may describe the feelings differently and call it stressed out, worried, or restless. You might notice recurring worries or fears or vigilance about certain sticking points in someone's life. Maybe there is an increased caution or avoidance you have noticed or maybe they may have trouble concentrating and are more irritable than normal. And yes, I know teenagers are already moody and irritable but this will look different. If you’re paying attention there is more of a rigidity or vigilance to it that I would describe as fragile on the other side. That fragile side might look like people-pleasing, withdrawing from situations where someone feels judged, threatened, or inadequate, or procrastinating.
As for physical symptoms of anxiety, I want to circle back to what is going on in the body when your body is anxious. What has happened is that your brain perceived or even created a “threat”. This threat could revolve around health, safety, social standing… anything that feels dangerous. When your brain senses a threat - even when that threat comes from a story you told yourself or something you saw on TV, whatever it is, your body is flooded with adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones are responsible for how your body reacts and are what cause your heart to speed up, your arms and legs to feel hot, heavy, prickly, cold, or even detached, your muscles to tense up and when they stay tense for too long, they can get sore and achy or cause tension headaches, or pain in jaw. Adrenaline and cortisol also direct the blood away from your digestive track so you might experience acid reflux which can cause you to sniff or clear your throat a lot, stomach aches, diarrhea, constipation.
All of these really common symptoms or behaviors won’t come and go like sickness or having a bad day. You’ll begin to notice or maybe you have already noticed a pattern.
For example, you might notice that when you feel anxious you bite your nails or your cuticles. Maybe you bounce your legs or hold your breath. These are common behaviors and in hindsight you might notice that you’re incredibly anxious lately but you don’t notice the picking, bouncing or breath holding until after the fact. Becoming aware of how your body feels and what your reaction is your first step. Finding that feeling in your body and getting curious about your reaction allows you to pause and make friends with your anxiety. I can help you with this.
Before you call me crazy, you absolutely have to get familiar with anxiety before you can deal with it. You have to be willing to feel it to heal it - and yes, I know that sounds cliche.
If you’re here to help someone else, you can simply ask someone how they’re feeling and listen to their answer. They might tell you straight up they feel anxious or they may tell you everything under the sun they are thinking or feeling; let them talk.
This brings me to how you can help them.
Now that you know what anxiety looks like, you can put your cape on.
When you recognize symptoms of anxiety in someone you care about it can feel a bit overwhelming and scary for you as well as for them. Keep in mind that anxiety does not mean anything is actually dangerous or wrong. It is simply the body’s reaction to an onslaught of hormones. If this is something you’ve never experienced before and anxiety isn’t part of your life you absolutely have to understand that you can not and should not downplay how they feel.
The number one way to help someone with anxiety is to believe them! They really do feel like absolute hell and they really do believe something is wrong - even the craziest and most irrational stories FEEL true to them. Let them know you believe they feel terrible and stop. You do not want to get into the anxiety story pool with them. Your job is to believe the feelings and that they believe the stories in the moment but you should not buy into their stories unless you truly believe they are in medical danger and then you should seek medical help. No one is in actual danger when they are anxious.
Number two: ask them what they need from you? Maybe they need some air or space? Maybe they want to be left alone or maybe they need to squeeze your hand. When you ask, you offer them control when they feel very much out of control. I want to add a word of caution here for you as the helper; asking them what they need does NOT mean doing something for them because they feel anxious. In fact, you absolutely do not want to do it for them. I know this may sound harsh but let me tell you why. When you make the phone call, drive them to the store, google the symptom, whatever it is, you are reinforcing the scary thought in their brain that they are in danger. It might feel helpful and innocent but in the long run, it keeps them repeating the cycle and never learning to trust themselves or to be able to do things that feel scary and uncomfortable while they learn to do the things that scare them. You can ride along, sit with them to support them while they call to make an appointment or order a pizza, go to the party with them, whatever that looks like but DO NOT offer reassurance!
Instead of reassurance, let’s move to number three. Offer to sit and simply breathe with them if they are really struggling at the moment. Let them know you’re not going anywhere and ask them to breathe along with you so they have support and guidance while they calm down. Slowly breathe in deeply and fully, hold your breath at the top, exhale fully, pushing the air out at the bottom of the breath. Pause and repeat. You can also distract them by talking about the weather, finding things that are a particular color, or asking them about their favorite ice cream flavor. Anything you do to distract them from how their body feels and the thoughts they are having will bring them back into the present. Once you see they’ve calmed down, celebrate with them in some way - tell them nice work or maybe a little high five to let them really see that they navigated through and made it. Brains love little hits of dopamine and the reinforcement helps them to remember they have been successful in the past so they can do it again.
This is hero work! This is life-changing presence that can lead someone to finally feeling brave and capable enough to realize they do not have to feel held hostage by overwhelm and fear forever. If you’re reading this to help yourself, you can be your own superhero! From someone who lived it for far too long to another, it is 100% possible and you will look back on your life one day and blow your own mind at how far you have come.
You’ll notice it’s been ages since you crumbled into an anxious pile of tears and terror, you’ll be challenging yourself to try things that trigger you now AND you’ll be helping other people who desperately want to feel normal and calm at the same time.
But… you have to take the first step! You have to be willing to help yourself to help others and the longer you allow yourself to make anxiety the boss of your decisions and life, the less time you have to experience the peace and power of doing whatever the hell you want!
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