It’s difficult when we feel the heavy weight of anxiety bearing down on us, but watching a loved one deal with it can be just as hard. In fact, one of the most common questions we hear from our meQuilibrum community is, “How do I help my partner/child/sibling/parent/friend who’s really stressed?” So we decided to dedicate this week’s Cup of Calm to providing concrete ways you can help a loved one in distress return to a place of calm and capability.
April is Stress Awareness Month, which is all about increasing public awareness of both the causes and cures for our modern stress epidemic. In that spirit, we’ve put together a list of meQuilibrium’s top tips for soothing anxiety in others, from our Chief Science Officer Dr. Andrew Shatté.
It’s common to feel frustrated or powerless. The key? Counterbalancing the physical symptoms of anxiety and helping to put the issue in perspective. Here are five actionable ways to do just that:
1. Help them reconnect with the present
When someone you love is in the throes of anxiety, your first instinct might be to urge them to “calm down” or to “just relax.” But this may not be possible, because anxiety has a physical component that you can’t always “think” your way out of. “Anxiety is triggered when we perceive a threat, and that perception, accurate or not, causes a release of adrenaline,” says Shatté. “It activates the sympathetic nervous system, an age-old way to get us to flee from danger. We sweat, and we even get dry mouth as a way to preserve moisture. Any activity that requires blood or energy shuts down, so we get cold feet and tingling fingers.” These sensations are real, so don’t invalidate them. Instead, help your loved one reconnect with the present moment. You can do this by asking them to close their eyes and notice their body or what’s going on around them: the feeling of their feet touching the ground, the weight of their hands in their lap, the quiet hum of an air conditioner or heater.
2. Get them moving
Next, help them begin to calm down their body. Encourage them to take a deep breath, which reduces anxiety—breathing deeply activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which balances out the sympathetic nervous system and works to calm us down. Ask them to take 5 to 10 deep breaths, or try walking them through a breathing exercise. Offer them a drink of water, which eases an upset stomach and dry mouth. Then, get active. When Shatté’s kids feel nervous, he takes them on a walk, “because anxiety has that motivational piece of wanting to run away,” he says. “Behaviorally, walking forward is the exact opposite. Moving toward something shows you have nothing to fear.”
3. Help them get perspective
Imagine you’re standing in a dark, unfamiliar room. Fearful of what could be lurking in the shadows, you stumble around, blindly searching for the exit. Not very pleasant, right? Now imagine you’re in the same room, but someone switches on the light. There may be obstacles in your way, but you can see the exit—and your path becomes clear. This is a good analogy for anxious thinking. When anxious thoughts are rattling around in our mind, it’s easy to get lost or overwhelmed. Simply naming our worries can bring some much-needed clarity. Turn on the light for your loved one by asking them to clearly verbalize what they fear. The trick is to get those thoughts out of their head and into the light, so they become less scary—and less believable.
4. Ask “then what?”
Once you understand their fears, walk them through worst-case scenarios. Maybe your spouse is worried about a stressful meeting with a boss. Ask, “And then what?” They might be afraid of being criticized. “And then what?” They may be afraid of getting fired, losing their income, and ending up on the street. Walking them through these steps illustrates how remote our worst fears often are. For example, the chances of one high pressure meeting ending in your home being repossessed is unlikely, to say the least. “When people are anxious, they often go well beyond the evidence in front of them—they go from layoffs to a dumpster,” Shatté says. Verbalizing worst-case scenario fears helps to neutralize them.
5. Bring positivity into the balance
It’s human nature to spend more time and energy on the negative events in our life than we do the positive—but this keeps us stuck in survival mode. In order to truly thrive, we have to mindfully bring more positivity into our lives. So, once your loved one has found a place of calm, help them shift their thinking to the positive. Have them list three things they are grateful for—there is no wrong answer, and nothing is too small to qualify. Bonus points for writing it down. To help prevent future anxiety, encourage your loved one to make it a habit—beyond reducing stress, the scientifically-proven benefits of this practice range from better sleep to improved self-esteem.
By helping a loved one cope with anxiety, you’re helping them to guard against it. Coping isn’t easy, but by offering your support, you can ensure that your loved one doesn’t have to tackle it alone.
Kara Baskin is a Boston-based journalist who writes about food, health, wellbeing, and lifestyle for The Boston Globe, Boston Magazine, Women’s Health, and AARP’s Life Reimagined. She’s also the author of “Size Matters: The Hard Facts About Male Sexuality That Every Woman Should Know” (Random House). Find her on Twitter @kcbaskin