How do you support someone with anxiety?

Dr Claire Hayes told Pat Kenny reassurance is not the answer

A lack of understanding surrounding anxiety disorders means people are often unequipped when it comes to supporting those who suffer.

Dr Claire Hayes, Consultant clinical psychologist, lecturer, author of “Hope in the Age of Anxiety”, explained that some people say “people with anxiety just need a good kick up the arse”.

So how do we challenge that perception and continue to offer people help and support when it can be a very frustrating time for everyone?

Defining 'anxiety'

"Anxiety is a trigger that help us respond to danger," she told The Pat Kenny Show. "It's something we all experience. It's important and we all need it."

Anxiety becomes a problem when it predominates our thinking, when it is exaggerated and when it becomes the mind's sole focus.

"The problem now is that anxiety is triggered just as quickly as what we think might be danger. Losing our keys might not be a problem, but if we think we're going to get into trouble or we think we're going to let somebody else down, that's when we become anxious as well.

"It feels horrible, and most of us don't want to feel that really sick feeling in our stomach [...] And we feel stupid when we experience anxiety - particularly if its something other people don't have a problem with."

Ultimately, the natural thing for those suffering from anxiety is to avoid what makes them anxious, for short term relief. For those looking to assist someone else's suffering, their want often results in them colluding with the anxious, hyper-focusing on their feelings.

"Reassurance does not work"

Dr Hayes recommends acknowledging first, and distracting second when it comes to supporting someone with anxiety. She said she encourages "gentle tough love".

"It's important to say, 'look, my sense is your feeling very anxious, and I'm just concerned about what I can do to help you'," she said. "It's distraction, but it's done in a really understanding way.

"We really don't understand what anxiety is. The increase in anxiety is because people are becoming anxious about anxiety."

According to Dr Hayes, it's necessary to show people suffering that there are options available to them.

"The treatment for cancer is chemotherapy. It doesn't make people feel good - it's tough. But once people know that, they don't start to worry because they're feeling sick. It's accepted that that's part of it. The treatment for anxiety is actually very tough - it's 'do it', but 'do it in a gentle way'.

"We're so hard on ourselves, and the big thing is developing compassion and kindness. We have this notion that we're all supposed to be a certain way, and if we're not, then we're failing. So to experience anxiety now equals failure when it doesn't.

"It's a normal response - sometimes our fight/flight switch is a bit wonky and once we realise that we have to do something about it."