Though there are different types of anxiety disorders, they all have the same underlying foundation: excessive worry and fear that can make daily life feel like a battle. If you’ve ever been around a friend whose spiraling anxiety is causing them distress—or if you’ve been the recipient of some panicked texts—you get how awful it can feel to see a friend in pain and not know how to respond. They don’t exactly teach this stuff in schools (though they really should, right?). So, in an effort to help out, we talked to a couple of experts about exactly what to say when a friend’s anxiety is getting particularly severe—and a few responses you should steer clear of too.
Try saying the following to help a friend whose anxiety is climbing:
1. “What can I do to help right now?”
Yes, it’s almost absurdly simple and may seem glaringly obvious, but it’s also incredibly important. “Without knowing what the person wants, it's hard to know what to do,” Martin Antony, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Ryerson University in Toronto and author of The Anti-Anxiety Workbook, tells SELF.
The ways people experience anxiety can vary so widely depending on factors like their specific diagnosis, personality, life experiences, the kind of day they’re having, and more. “Some people may want support, some people may want advice, some people may want people to just leave them alone,” Antony says.
That’s why, in general, asking is a better way to support someone than diving in under the assumption that you know how to help, Antony says. Even better: If your friend mentions their anxiety on a day when it’s not skyrocketing, take the opportunity to open up a conversation about how best to support them when it does feel unmanageable. Though what they say may be subject to change, you can get some baseline information to work with when your friend’s having a tough time.
2. “Would it help if I just sat here with you?”
If your friend’s anxiety is so severe that they can’t communicate what they want or need from you, a potentially helpful thing to do is just sit down with them for as long as they need, Antony says.
Rachel W., 32, has found that having support this way can be really helpful when she’s feeling super anxious. “Hearing this is the best: ‘I know you're spiraling right now, and it feels like you can't control it, so let's just breathe together in the meantime,’” Rachel tells SELF.
“Offering a consistent, calm, and reassuring presence speaks volumes,” Lekeisha Sumner, Ph.D, clinical health psychologist at UCLA, tells SELF. “[It] communicates that they are loved and supported.”
Rachel has also found it helpful for the friend in question to count out loud as a way to help her focus on her breathing and slow it down. (Many people have a tough time breathing during heightened anxiety.) “Encouraging the individual to slow down breathing can be useful,” Antony says. Whether or not it helps and how exactly to go about it will depend on the person and your relationship, but if they’re really having a hard time breathing at a normal pace, it could be worth a try.
3. “I love you and I am always here for you, no matter what’s going on.”
Sometimes, a compassionate text checking in with your friend can offer reassurance from a distance. Rachel had a friend who would constantly offer support by sending kind and reassuring texts, something she found enormously comforting at times when her anxiety was getting out of hand. “She'd say, ‘While I don't know what you're going through, I love you and I'm here for you no matter what,’” Rachel explains.
The specifics of what you say will vary based on your friendship and what exactly the person in question is dealing with. The point is to let them know they have your unwavering support, even when you’re not together in real life.
4. “Do you want me to come over?”
If your friend is having a difficult time being alone, you could offer to go over to talk (or just hang) until their anxiety subsides a little. However, Antony notes that there can be a fine line here. People with various anxiety disorders sometimes have what experts call safety behaviors, which are coping mechanisms that may help someone deal in the moment but can become a sort of crutch over time by preventing the person from actually working through their anxiety. “During treatment, we encourage people to gradually reduce their use of safety behaviors, including the need to be accompanied when feeling panicky,” Antony explains.
Your goal is to be supportive without accidentally encouraging the use of excessive safety behaviors that could just prolong your friend’s journey in treating their anxiety (or, say, feeling like you always need to drop everything in your own life to be there during a friend’s anxious moments). If you’re worried about this, it’s something you can gently ask about during a more neutral moment when your friend’s anxiety isn’t spiking.
This might feel weird to do, but if you frame it as being concerned about how your friend might cope when you can’t be there—not about feeling burdened or irritated—they’ll hopefully understand. That’s especially true if you underscore it with the message that you want to help them manage their anxiety as best as possible in the long term, not just in the moments when you’re able to be by their side.
5. “Are you looking for advice or would you rather I just listen?”
You might have the urge to immediately give your friend advice, because of course you want to help them fix anything that’s making them anxious. Sometimes that could be just what they need. Other times, though, people want to express their feelings without getting a list of things to do in response. Delivering the kind of support your friend needs can help them feel more understood, which is why it’s important to clarify which type they’re looking for, Antony says.
If your friend just wants you to listen, throw yourself into that. Listening is an art and requires putting away all distractions, not interrupting, and letting your friend know you’re not going to judge them for what they say. If they want advice, depending on what you’re planning to share, you might want to couch it with something like, “I don't know if this fully applies to what you're going through.” Or consider posing it as a very specific question first, Emanuel Maidenberg, clinical professor of psychiatry and the director of the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Clinic at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, tells SELF. He says to try something like, “Can I tell you what helps me when I feel stressed and upset?” If they say “no,” take them for their word.
Unless a friend has specifically mentioned that these phrases help them, avoid the following:
1. “There’s no reason to panic.”
If your friend is having a panic attack, your first instinct might be to say they shouldn’t panic. But that’s not how panic attacks work—if it were, people would have way fewer of them! Trying to force someone to fight it off by saying something like, “Don’t panic” or “You’re fine” may only make their fear stronger as they realize not panicking simply isn’t possible.
Antony’s advice for helping a friend through a panic attack reflects his approach with patients who have panic attacks themselves. “What I encourage clients to do during panic attacks is nothing,” he explains. “The more they try to control the attack, the more they try to make it go away—those efforts to prevent anxiety and panic often make it more intense.” Similarly, trying to convince your friend not to panic is not going to help them stop panicking—it will only reinforce the idea that panic is dangerous and to be avoided, Antony explains, which in itself creates more anxiety about the situation.
Try saying something like, “I know this is difficult. Let’s just sit through it. Panic attacks always pass in time,” Antony recommends.
2. “Everyone gets stressed sometimes—this is so normal.”
While you might want to make your friend feel less alone by telling them that this is something everybody deals with, this can actually be one of the worst things to do. Saying something like, “Everyone gets stressed sometimes” can make it seem like you don’t understand the difference between stress and actual clinical anxiety. They might wind up feeling dismissed, Antony says.
Rachel has had this experience: “I've had friends tell me they understand the anxiety…because they have a lot going on, too, and that's hugely minimizing.”
Even if you do have a very similar experience with anxiety, remember that responding to your friend’s experiences by talking about your own mental health might inadvertently focus the conversation on you when it should really be about their heightened anxiety in that moment. Mentioning that you deal with similar issues can definitely help your friend feel less alone, but it shouldn’t be a deep dive into your own experiences (unless they ask for it). If they do want to know more about your experience, it can still be smart to kick off with a disclaimer like, “I’m not sure how true this is for you, but I find…”
3. “Just stop worrying and you’ll feel so much better.”
You’re obviously not going to say anything to outright attack your friend. But even an innocent comment you might think of as light and helpful (“Just try to relax!”) could come across as criticism (“Ugh, why can’t she just relax?”). Be sensitive to that by being extra considerate with your words.
“If somebody is feeling anxious, they [might be] feeling threatened and endangered,” Antony explains. “Saying things that are critical or applying pressure to the person, those sorts of things will often the increase anxiety levels.” He strongly cautions against saying things like, “You're being so sensitive” or “I promise, if you stop worrying things will get better.” Whether you’re trying to be encouraging or offer some kind of tough love, it can come across as a snipe to someone who’s in a vulnerable place.
This sensitivity extends to your body language, too, Antony says. Be careful not to roll your eyes or make sarcastic comments, even if you truly can’t understand why your friend is dealing with anxiety. Those cues can signal that you’re not taking them seriously or are irritated, no matter what’s coming out of your mouth.
Bottom line: Keep in mind that anxiety is a fickle beast, and the ways to be there for a friend who has it might change over time.
No one’s perfect, even you when you’re trying your absolute hardest to be the best friend you can be. It’s OK not to know what to do and to worry you might say the wrong thing to a friend who’s really going through it. What matters most is that instead of simply telling them to get help or distancing yourself from them out of fear, you make a commitment to being there through the ups and the downs that anxiety so often creates—and that your friend knows you’ll be there too.
This article was originally published on SELF