How to Deal with Anxious People

by on October 15, 2013

anxious peopleEven if you are not personally not plagued with anxiety, it may be plaguing someone you work with, live with or have to deal with on a regular basis. Learning the best methods for dealing with anxious people can start with avoiding the worst things you can do.

What NOT to Do

Platitudes typically fall flat. Telling your anxious friend, coworker or family member that “Everything will be OK,” “You have nothing to worry about,” or, worse yet, “Get over it,” does more harm than help. Psychology Today blogger Pamela Wiegartz also notes a commonplace scenario that can erupt, causing even more harm.

  • You try the “don’t worry about it” stuff
  • It doesn’t work so you try to do extra around the house or workplace to pick up the slack and lighten the anxious person’s load
  • This doesn’t work to alleviate anxiety, either, and you start to get resentful at the person since you’re now on overload
  • Anger hits and you turn to criticizing or ultimatums
  • This creates more tension, stress and, you guessed it, increased anxiety 

What You Can Do 

A number of strategies can help you effectively live and work with anxious people, no matter how casual or intimate your relationship may be.

Work on Communication 

Communicating with anxious people can be tricky, Harvard Business Review writer Mark Goulston says, as brains tend to constrict when anxiety hits. That constriction makes it tough for the emotional brain to connect to the rational brain, leaving much of what you say to an anxious person likely to get stuck in the lower brain ruled by the “fight or flight” response.

He says the key to effective communication is making sure what you say is interpreted by anxious folks as talking with them or to them, not talking at them. While his article focuses on anxious employees in the workplace, the same strategy would apply at home or elsewhere with loved ones and friends.

How anxious people respond to what you’re saying with their body language and actions can indicate how they’re interpreting your communication:

  • You’re talking over them: They duck out of the conversation ASAP, thinking you a wind bag or, in Goulston’s words, a buffoon.
  • You’re talking at them: They become submissive and appear intimidated OR they become defensive and angry, thinking you’re scolding.
  • You’re talking to them: They nod and appear to understand and agree, thinking you’re speaking in the regular business-as-usual mode.
  • You’re talking with them: They’ll relax their neck and shoulders, appearing comfortable and even comforted by your communication. “This is the language of intimacy,” Goulston says, and the language you want to use when discussing more personal matters at work and especially at home. 

Trial and error as well as choosing your tone and words quite carefully can help you communicate most effectively with anxious people who might otherwise shut you out. Don’t forget, too, you can always amend your wording and tone if the person starts looking like they’re about to flee because they think you’re a buffoon. 

Break out the Books 

The more you learn about anxiety, the better position you’ll be in to understand and help anyone who suffers from it. Check out the various causes, symptoms and treatments. Share what you’ve learned with the person who’s affected by it. Pay special attention to the treatment aspect of the condition, and encourage treatment that may help.

If anxiety is hitting very close to home and you feel confident in your knowledge of it, you may even want to try to coach the anxious person to help them cope with their condition. Wiegartz suggests offering to help the person through his or her self-help program, therapy goals or simply serving as a positive and encouraging model for recovery. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) additionally suggests working with the person to set his or her own set of goals, and then helping the person reach them.

Know When to Back Off (and When to Push) 

One of the wisest and most helpful things you can do is to create the proper balance between backing off and pushing forward, both Wiegartz and the ADAA  note.

Backing off means being patient. Don’t push the person when it could be more hurtful than helpful. But backing off ad infinitum can actually make things much worse. Wiegartz says being too accommodating can create a cycle of dysfunction and yet greater anxiety.

You can catch yourself being too accommodating if you start doing everything for that person and expecting them to do nothing. Giving in to every request and unconditional acceptance can also both backfire. Neither does anything to help the person learn to work his or her anxious state and learn to become a productive member of society, much less your workplace or household.

Criticism can actually be helpful for anxious people, Weigartz adds, provided you supply the right kind. The right kind of criticism does not attack, belittle or all-out reject the person for being anxious, but rather focuses on specific behaviors the person can work on changing. 

Take Care of Yourself

Don’t forget your own needs in the process of helping others, especially since you won’t be much help if you end up in your own frazzled and exhausted state. The ADAA underscores the importance of setting and maintaining boundaries and then letting the other person know what they are: 

“For instance, if your partner is not working and is not seeking treatment, participating in support groups, or doing anything to try to become well, you may need to discuss your expectations and how to improve the situation,” the ADAA says.

Reach out for your own help, talking with friends, family or even a therapist or support group. If you need help with your relationship with an anxious spouse, don’t discount couple’s therapy. And make sure to take time to nurture yourself, keeping up your interests, passions, personal time along with adequate time for relaxation.


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