10 things you can do to help a friend with anxiety

If a friend keeps cancelling plans, misses your calls, seems on edge and often says they feel really tired or headachy – they might have anxiety. Mental Health Nurse Advisor Kathryn Johnson shares 10 things you should know.

It’s understandable that you might not have realised what your friend is experiencing straight off the bat. You might be feeling hurt or think they’re just being lazy or avoiding you. But they could be battling something completely different and, fuelled by the nature of anxiety, they would be really upset if they thought they’d offended you. 

So on that note, here are some of the things a friend probably wishes they could tell you about their anxiety and how you can help. 
1.  Understand that it’s a struggle to control it; there isn’t an on or off switch. And sometimes the anxiety can occupy every space in their head, leaving little room for anything other than worry.
2.  Catch-ups aren’t being cancelled because they don’t want to see you or they can’t be bothered. The anxiety for now, has taken over and the fear of going out in a social situation is too scary, so don't take it personally. 
3. Understand that it’s exhausting, which is why they always seem tired. You might not understand why. But even though they aren’t doing a physical workout, their mind is on overdrive which is very draining and can translate into physical symptoms.
4.  Different situations and environments can bring on anxiety. Public places, meeting people, work and social events (even using a public toilet) can be very anxiety-inducing for some people. If your friend has social anxiety, they might be really worried that people are going to laugh at them, that they will say or do something embarrassing. They will probably be worrying about it before, during and after the event, it’s a very intrusive condition. 
5.  Anxiety can come out in a variety of ways. Your friend might be irritable with you or overreact to things they wouldn’t normally, such as being startled or surprised. Try not to take it personally and be patient. 
friends hugging
6.  Ask what they need. Sometimes it might be a hug, sometimes nothing. But it’s important to let your friend know they can ask you for help and not to be scared about doing so.
7.  People with anxiety are often very aware that they’re worrying too much, that they need to try and calm down or that they are overreacting. But telling them this won’t help. They already know it and if they could do it, they would.
8.  If your friend doesn’t want to do something, leave it there. Don’t try to persuade them to change their mind or force them into situations because it can make them feel worse. 
9.  Don’t disappear. Keep up the invitations – even if your friend continually declines, or accepts and then cancels later, keep offering. Suggest something that will involve just the two of you. Some days are better than others and your friend just might feel able to take you up on it.
10.  If your friend tells you they are feeling anxious, be aware that they might not know why or be able to explain. Ask if there’s anything you can do to help, but accept their answer if they can’t tell you what it is that’s worrying them in that moment. Instead try and empathise with them. Think about how you would like to be helped in a situation when you’ve felt upset or anxious.
The best thing you can do to help your friend is to learn and understand their illness more; be patient and kind and don’t give up on them – they need you.
For more, check our article: What NOT to say to someone with anxiety

If you'd like to learn more about anxiety or mental health, click here for additional Blue Room resources.

Anyone concerned about their mental health, or the mental health of others, is encouraged to reach out to their GP. There are also a range of services available for anyone who needs help. For young people between 12 and 24 years old headspace offers confidential online counselling, phone assistance, or you can walk into one of their centres. For adults,MindSpot and beyondblue also offer free telephone and online support services. If you need to speak to someone urgently you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14. 
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