Staying organized to reduce stress: Part 3


Dealing with Stress: How to Support Your Stressed and Anxious Family and Friends

In this blog post: What is anxiety? What not to say to someone who is anxious. What you can do instead. 

Anxiety is an emotion characterized by worried thoughts, feelings of tension, and physical changes in the body, such as a racing heart or shallow breathing. These bodily responses are an evolutionary adaptation that developed to help us survive when faced with a threat; we tense up or freeze so that we might avoid a predator, our heart rate increases to help us prepare to run away. However, in today’s world, the threats we face are quite different. Instead of being faced with a fast approaching lion, we are much more likely to encounter fast approaching deadlines. Unfortunately, freezing in the hope that our deadlines won’t see us is unlikely to work. In current scenarios, our bodily responses are more uncomfortable than helpful. Nonetheless, anxiety is a completely normal response to stress; everyone gets anxious sometimes. 

Some people experience more anxiety than others. If anxiety affects your life on a regular basis–your school, job, social life, etc.– you may have an anxiety disorder. In such cases, you may need some extra support (e.g., counsellors, psychologists, etc.)

But whether your loved one has an anxiety disorder, or just experiences anxiety every once in a while, there are certain things you can do to help, and certain things that just make things worse. For tips on what not to say to someone who is anxious, and some helpful things you might do instead, keep reading.

What Not to Say to Someone Who is Anxious:

“Don’t worry.” “Just relax.”

    “Stop worrying.”                          “Snap out of it.”

While it is natural to be tempted into these common responses when we see that a friend or family member is anxious, these sorts of responses are not helpful. If the person who is anxious could have stopped worrying or just relaxed, they would have done so. 

“It’s not a big deal.”             “You’ll be fine.”

“You’ll get over it.”

Responses like these dismiss the feelings of the person who is anxious. It may not be a big deal to you, but it apparently is to them. Telling them that something that is important to them isn’t important is not particularly helpful.

What can you do instead?

Instead of telling them to stop feeling the way they are feeling – something that isn’t really under their control –or telling them that something so important to them that it is causing anxiety isn’t important, there are a few things you can do that are a bit more constructive. 

  1. Validate their feelings. Acknowledge how they are feeling and point out what does make sense about the way they are feeling. If something is important to them, then of course they are going to feel a little worried or stressed about it. This is totally normal, and it is a good sign because it means that the thing they are worried about is meaningful to them. 
  1. Help them think things through logically. Even though it makes sense to be worried or stressed about something that is important to us, we can sometimes get a little too worried by no fault of our own, and this is called anxiety. Anxiety is when your level of stress is not proportional to the thing you are worried about – your feelings of stress are a little over the top. This happens because your emotions and evolutionary instincts are taking over your more logical side. Thus, a useful strategy for settling those anxious feelings is to think through the situation logically: What is the worst that could happen? You’ve done this task before and it went really well, so you’ll likely be okay. However, it’s important to note that thinking things through logically requires the right headspace. If our feelings are too overwhelming, having someone try to impose logic on us may be more frustrating than helpful. To determine whether suggesting a logical approach will be helpful or harmful, ask your loved one what they think: Do you think it would be helpful to think things through logically right now? If they say no, accept that answer; they know their feelings best.
  1. Help them make a plan. Feelings of anxiety often come up in the presence of uncertainty. By planning for possible outcomes, we can settle our anxious and restless minds, confident that we will know what to do when we run into the problems we are worried about. Even if the possible outcomes seem very unlikely, if your loved one is worried about it, then planning for it will help. Try not to judge them for their worries. Anxiety is illogical; that’s why it’s so uncomfortable and difficult to deal with. Instead of judging them for being dramatic or irrational, help them settle their anxious feelings by making a plan regardless.

Remember: everyone experiences anxiety in different ways. What might work for one person may not work for another. Finding the right response may take some guesswork and experimentation. However, there are some things that are unhelpful to the vast majority of people. So, avoiding these responses and replacing them with more constructive ones is a great place to start.

See part 1 of Staying Organized to Reduce Stress↗
See part 2 of Staying Organized to Reduce Stress↗

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