Someone you care about appears anxious

Questions and strategies to help you have a supportive conversation when someone you care about appears anxious.

This is one of a series of topics in the Supportive conversation library. Review the guidelines including what to do if you are concerned for another’s safety before engaging in the conversation.

What do you notice?

You notice someone you care about appears to be finding it harder to navigate certain life circumstances as a result of feeling anxious. Maybe they’re increasingly avoiding certain situations that were comfortable for them in the past. Perhaps their physiological state changes when exposed to those situations. You might notice shortness of breath, sweating or complaints about upset stomach or muscle pains. You might also notice behavioural changes when the individual’s exposed to these situations that present as irritability, shortened patience or an outburst of intense emotion. 

What do you need to understand?

People get anxious when there’s a perceived threat. Anxiety is often compared to the feeling of fear as it results in the same physiological response in the body. However, we feel fear as a result of a real threat – where our survival is in danger. We feel anxious when we think something or someone’s a threat. Feelings of anxiety come about as a result of biological, psychological and social influences in our life.

What do you need to consider?

Anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling people try to make go away. Often, if someone discovers they’re anxious about a certain situation or encounter with an individual, they’ll find ways to avoid the anticipated uncomfortable feeling. Avoidant behaviour is a common maladaptive coping strategy against feelings of anxiety. Individuals in anxious situations can have emotional outbursts – try not to take this personally. It’s not helpful to tell someone to stop feeling anxious about a perceived threat. To the individual experiencing anxiety, the perceived threat is very real and they’ll have an intensely uncomfortable emotional and physiological response. Try to imagine how you’d comfort someone who’s fearful of something and translate that into support for someone who appears anxious.

Engaging in a supportive conversation?

Have the right mindset

Come into the conversation from a supportive place. Watch out for your hidden agenda, such as wanting to fix or influence the individual. Avoid “you” statements, such as “you always do…”. They often make the person feel judged or invalidated. Be curious and have the mindset that you don’t know anything about their experiences.

Questions to check your mindset:

  • What are my assumptions about this situation?
  • How will I keep my assumptions out of the conversation and be supportive?
  • What do I hope to achieve by having this conversation?
  • How can I keep my desires for an outcome from interfering with my ability to be supportive?

Notice

Notice changes in behaviour that aren’t typical for the person and ask about them. Don’t add your assumptions or opinions about why those changes may be happening. If you’re wrong, the person may be discouraged from continuing the conversation.

Examples of “noticing” conversation starters:

  • “I notice you seem uncomfortable in certain situations. What’s happening in those situations for you?”
  • “I noticed you aren’t coming to these events anymore like you used to. Are they not enjoyable for you anymore?”

Preparing for the response

Not all supportive conversations lead to an understanding of how you can help. Remember, the goal of a supportive conversation is to understand the individual’s needs and wants and whether they’re open to assistance. The guidelines below can help prepare you to respond when the person is open or not to a discussion.

When the individual doesn’t appear open to discussion – a closed-door response:

Not everyone’s comfortable being asked how they feel or exploring reasons why they’re behaving differently. You might get avoidant responses, like “I’m fine” or “It’s none of your business.” If this is the case, you can reiterate your concern and leave an opening for them to walk into when they’re ready.

  • “I was concerned about you and wanted to ask. If you say you’re okay, I’ll trust you. If that changes, I’m here to support you if you need me.”

If the supportive conversation ends here, you should feel good that you noticed and asked about their well-being. Try not to take the response or tone personally despite the conversation not going anywhere. It takes courage to initiate these types of conversations, and it’s not your responsibility to force another to notice or change their behaviour.

When the individual appears to be open to discussion – an open-door response:

If the person confirms they feel differently or that life circumstances have changed for them, you’ve opened the door to having a supportive conversation.

The next statement might be:

  • “Tell me more. I want to better understand what you’re going through.”

Continue to follow the guidelines below for having a supportive conversation.

Continuing the conversation

Listen

Listen for where the individual feels unsupported or doesn’t have their needs met. When they’re finished speaking, confirm what you heard by rephrasing it and asking if you understand it correctly.

Examples of “listening” in the conversation include:

  • “I’m hearing that you feel uncomfortable when in certain situations. Is that right?”
  • “You’ve shared that you’re having some concerning reactions in your body like [increased heart rate, trouble catching your breath or upset stomach] when in certain situations. Is that what I’m hearing?”

Highlight

Highlight strengths you see in the person. Some examples could be courage or persistence in dealing with the situation they just shared with you.

Here’s an examples of “calling out strengths” in the conversation:

  • “Thank you for sharing your experiences. They sound intense and worrisome. It takes courage to reflect on how life circumstances affect us differently than before and to share that with another.”

Identify

Identify what support the individual wants and connect them with relevant resources.  Don’t insist on support or resources they don’t want or aren’t ready to accept.

Examples of “identifying support” in the conversation include:

  • “You’ve identified the need to address the uncomfortable feelings or reactions in your body when exposed to certain situations. How can I best support you at this time?”*
  • “I can support you with finding resources that might help to address this – would that help?”

*Note: If there’s a limit on how you can be supportive, be specific about how you can help. The offer of support needs to be realistic and in line with your own abilities and available time. Otherwise, talk about what’s realistic for both of you to do at this time to create change in the other’s life.

Create an action

Create an action with the individual to leverage their strengths and follow up on a regular basis, adding additional resources when they’re ready. Give a clear timeline or understanding of how you’ll be supportive.

Here’s an example of “creating an action plan” in the conversation:

  • “I’m so glad we had this conversation. You mentioned a few things you wanted to address as soon as possible. I’ll follow through with my offer of support in the next week.”

Thank you for being supportive! You’ve taken the time to learn to have a conversation that lets  your loved one or friend know you notice and care about them. By showing concern, you can help them evaluate whether they should continue as is or address certain elements in their life. For some, this may be the beginning of a journey that will require the assistance of additional support services or professionals.

Additional resources

To be an effective supporter, it’s helpful to understand more of what your family member or friend’s experiencing. Check out these resources to provide more context about their experiences: