Anxiety is everywhere right now. Honestly, if you know a person who isn’t a little anxious during this trying and uncertain time of Covid-19 quarantine, splash water on them to see if their circuit board fries and shorts out. But it effects everyone in different ways. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, on a good day, approximately 40 million Americans suffer from diagnosed anxiety. But now that we’ve got a previously unimagined combination of health, economic, and general stress, even the coolest of cool heads may be prone to bouts of anxiety or anxious thinking.
That’s okay. And normal. And expected. According to the CDC, stress triggered specifically by a virus outbreak can lead to everything from fear and worry about one’s health and the health of their loved ones, to increased use of substances, to difficulty sleeping and eating. None of these behaviors are ideal but, during a time like this, all of them are increasingly normal. So, even if you’re not succumbing to them yourself, you likely know someone with anxiety. And you want to help.
But how do you best help someone with anxiety? It can be a tricky experience to navigate. You don’t want to invalidate their fears, but you also don’t want to exacerbate them. It’s about finding a middle ground. That’s why we asked a broad range of experts for some of their most actionable, and most effective tips for helping a friend with anxiety navigate our current state of affairs. Even if this person is across the state, the country, or the world, these tips can help. Here’s what to do.
Encourage Thoughts About the Future
Anxiety can trap someone in the now. And now is pretty scary. Shifting someone’s thinking away from the current anxiety-producing situation is a great way to get out of their own heads. “The idea is to shift their thinking away from the current situation that is causing anxiety, and getting them to focus on a more pleasant time ahead of them,” says Dr. Prakash Masand, psychiatrist and founder of the Centers of Psychiatric Excellence. “Having something to look forward to is a quick and easy way to improve your mood.” If the person can’t think of an answer, Dr. Masand suggests telling them that the two of you will get together once it’s all over, either to see a movie, go to their favorite restaurant, or do something else you both enjoy. A small gesture of solidarity that can have a big effect.
Avoid Calling Attention to their Anxiety
While the intention might be right, saying something like, ‘Hey, I know you get really anxious about these things…’ is only going to make things worse, explains Dr. Vinay Saranga, psychiatrist and founder of Saranga Comprehensive Psychiatry. Instead, Dr. Saranga suggests simply letting them know you’re checking in on them, want to see how they are doing, and see if they feel like discussing anything. “Basically, make it obvious that you’re wondering if there is anything you can do as a friend during these crazy times.”
Make Them Laugh
There’s no better way to distract an anxious friend than with a hearty laugh. Humor, per Dr. Steven M. Sultanoff, clinical psychologist and professional speaker, reduces anxiety in three ways. First, the physical response to humor, laughter, reduces the stress hormone, cortisol, increases antibodies and increases tolerance to pain. Second, humor activates mirth, which is the emotional reaction to anything funny. Distressing emotions and humor cannot occupy the same psychological space. “Finally, humor inspires wit, which is the cognitive reaction to humor,” he says. Wit can help with everything from gaining perspective to lessening the potency of emotional distress.” Need some inspiration? Click here, here, and here.
Make Your Presence Known
Now, more than ever, everyone is just a phone call, text message, or FaceTime away. Anxiety creates feelings of burden, so someone who is truly suffering might not feel comfortable reaching out for help. Do it for them. “Social interaction is a key component of healthy human behavior,” says Dr. Saranga. “Your friend will be most appreciative for the opportunity to get things off their chest, and might welcome the chance to help you do the same. It’s a win-win, and one that’s very easy to accomplish in a real way with options such as Zoom and Skype being available.”
Effectively Emphasize the Positive
This is much, much different than parroting, “It could be worse,” “You’ve got so much to be grateful for”, “Look on the bright side.”, or other seemingly helpful positivity battle cry. To a person with anxiety, hearing those pearls is both invalidating and dismissive because, yeah, it could be worse, but that doesn’t mean that their current reality isn’t challenging and difficult.
According to Samara Quintero, licensed marriage and family therapist at The Psychology Group in Fort Lauderdale, many people default to such clichés when they don’t know what to say. “We try to encourage others by offering positivity, but it can be done incorrectly,” she says. “When it is, it comes off as inauthentic and dismissive, and can leave an individual feeling unheard. Similarly, a comparison like, ‘You think what you’re going through is bad..?’ will leave them feeling as they have no right to be anxious in their particular situation.”
Normalize the Experience
Because a major cause of anxiety is loneliness, it’s important to remind people that everyone’s reality has changed for the time being. “The key is to help your friend see that there is no shame in their response,” says Quintero. If they tell you they are anxious? Commend them for speaking out. “It’s a huge risk for an anxious person to trust someone enough to confide in them,” says Quintero. “Thank them for taking that risk by saying something like, ‘Anyone in that position would probably feel the same way.’ You’ll increase their sense of trust, and strengthen the emotional bond in your relationship.”
Tell Them to Turn Off the News
It’s important to stay informed. But, in an effort to process the legitimate information, and avoid the sensationalist debris, Dr. Masand advises scheduling time to consume news, and restricting how much. “Tell them to devote 10-15 minutes in the morning and the evening to staying informed,” he says recommending such reliable sources as the CDC, Medscape, or the National Institute of Health. “Your choice of what medium you use is as important as the amount of time you decide to engage with it,” he says. “For the rest of the day, encourage them to keep him or herself busy with work, watching TV, playing video games, or whatever activity puts them at ease.”
Control is a huge thing for an anxious person, mainly because they feel like they don’t have any. So, if you can offer them a choice, you’ll be planting seeds of stability that can grow into a less frenetic, more constructive mindset. “If you do have helpful suggestions for your friend, ask if he or she is interested in hearing them,” says Rev. Connie L. Habash, licensed family therapist and author of Awakening from Anxiety: A Spiritual Guide to Living a More Calm, Confident, and Courageous Life. “Not only does it feel more respectful, but they’ll be more receptive to your suggestions as well. In fact, if this gets the conversation rolling, you can encourage them to brainstorm ways that have helped or hindered their past anxiety, and then help them build on how to use those techniques more directly.”
Be the First Positive Thing They See or Hear
“The quality of a person’s day can be decided within the first five minutes of waking up,” explains Robin Haslam, national and international addiction and mental health counselor, and General Manager of 1000 Islands Wellness. “If you know someone who is feeling especially anxious during this quarantine, find a way to make sure the first moments of their day are positive. Send them a text bright and early, or before you go to bed so they can see it when they wake up. It’s critical for those feeling anxious to know that they’re not alone.”
Throw a Virtual Party
Staying busy is important. Even those stuck inside can still connect and engage in group social settings. “You can schedule virtual get-togethers and parties, just like you would’ve done before quarantine,” says Dr. Masand. “Do a virtual wine tasting. Do a virtual book club. Do a virtual music hour. You can still indulge in these fun, distracting practices while respecting social distancing.” And, many companies are offering free access to otherwise premium content due to the circumstances. Everything from coding classes, to online workout classes is available, and perfect for alleviating anxiety.
Help Them Imagine the Worst…
Though it seems counterintuitive to managing anxiety, helping an anxious person examine every catastrophe they’re imagining can, per Dr. Paul Puri, psychiatrist, and the Chief Medical Officer and co-founder of OOtify mental health community, actually organize and demystify punishing thoughts. “Many people going through anxiety suffer from ‘catastrophic thinking’,” he explains. “They imagine the absolute worst thing that can possibly happen, but they don’t play it out fully. Help them do that. Ask them what would happen next? And what would happen after that? And so on. Often, if they can come up with a plan for that worst case scenario, there’s a lot less to be afraid of.”