How to respond to someone with anxiety

How do you reply when someone tells you “I’ve GOT anxiety”

Recently I had a conversation with a teenager, that went like this (shortened version):

Me: “How are you?”

Them: “Not good, I’ve got anxiety and I’ve got lots of problems that no-one seems able to help me with.”

Having had several conversations before I had a good handle on the problems so decided to take a different tack:

Me: “Mmmm, I can see that you ‘have’ anxiety. And you also ‘have’ happiness, curiosity, joy, excitement and all the many other emotions that we all experience. And would it help if  you could think of ‘problems’ as ‘life experiences’ that feel uncomfortable as they are unfamiliar and you are uncertain about how to tackle them.”

Them: “But it’s physical – I think there is something wrong with me.”

Me: “Emotions ARE physical – they are made up of chemicals that show up physically in your body. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with you that needs ‘fixing’. Rather this is an opportunity for you to understand how emotions work and to learn how to deal with new experiences.”

They reflected and later reported how relieved they felt that there was nothing wrong with them. That was actually one of the problems they thought they had!

Still troubled we talked more:

Me: “We’ll talk about the problems in a bit, but let’s take a moment to share all the things that have happened this week that we feel good about.” 

This generated a surprisingly long list of positive moments, sharing of past stories and a few laughs (we didn’t end up talking about the problems!).

Nothing changed during our conversation – the problems were still the same. And yet the teenager left with a smile and a couple of ideas for building on the positive moments.

I am not denying that life experiences trigger stress, anxiety, depression etc or belittling what someone is experiencing. Rather, in that moment I wanted to redress the balance, provide perspective and shift what we focussed on, to challenge the negative bias our ‘survival brain’ is naturally programmed for.

Life is not ALL bad. Indeed if you log all the emotions you feel in a day they won’t all be unpleasant. Also, if we focus on good things it helps us tune into pleasant feelings associated with them. 

Give this approach a go for yourself, or for someone you are supporting, and let me know how you get on.

And if you need help, reach out. If you want to chat through what you are experiencing and want some inspiration, email me at [email protected]

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