Unsure how to help someone with anxiety? We ask the experts how to offer sensitive, practical support for friends or family members

Our minds matter. And while it’s important to identify and deal with signs of anxiety in ourselves, it’s also important to be able to recognise when loved ones may feel anxious.

Our friends and family network can play a key role in helping support our mental health, with those closest to us often being the first to notice changes that we may prefer to sweep under the carpet.

So, if there’s someone in your life who may be dealing with anxiety and you want to show you’re there for them, we’re here to help. Our guide contains useful and practical tools that could help a friend or family member (and you) feel less alone. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, it's important to speak to a GP.

What is anxiety?

A feeling of unease or fear, which can be severe or mild, can be completely normal – to a point. “Anxiety is a natural emotion that we will all feel from time to time,” explains Dr David Crepaz-Keay, head of applied learning at the Mental Health Foundation.

When can it become a problem? “A survey we carried out among UK adults in November 2022 found that a quarter of adults felt so anxious that it stopped them from doing the things they want to do some or all of the time,” Dr Crepaz-Keay tells us.

There are a few common triggers we can look out for. “Lots of things can cause feelings of anxiety, including exam pressures, relationships, work, or other big life events,” says Dr Crepaz-Keay.

“Money’s a common trigger for anxiety and in recent times many more of us have felt anxious about not being able to meet our basic needs, like heating our home or buying food.”

If it becomes anxiety about a wide range of things, rather than one specific event, it could be generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). According to the NHS, people with GAD will feel anxious most days.

Anxiety can be experienced through our thoughts, feelings and physical sensations

How to recognise the signs of anxiety?

There are a lot of ways in which anxiety can manifest. “Anxiety can be experienced through our thoughts, feelings and physical sensations,” explains Sarah Miles, head of content at Mind.

The effects of anxiety on the body can be varied. Sarah outlines the following physical symptoms:

• A churning feeling in their stomach

• Feeling dizzy

• Pins and needles

• Feeling restless

• Aches and pains

• Faster breathing

• A fast, thumping or irregular heartbeat

• Excessive sweating

• Sleep problems

• Teeth grinding, especially at night

• Nausea

• Needing the toilet more or less frequently

• Changes in sex drive

• Panic attacks

Anxiety can also affect how they may feel and think. As Sarah explains, this can include a person you care about reporting:

• Feeling nervous, tense or unable to relax

• Feeling a sense of dread

• Feeling like the world is slowing down or speeding up

• Feeling like other people can see they’re anxious and are looking at them

• Feeling like they can’t stop worrying, or that bad things will happen if they stop worrying

• Asking for lots of reassurance from others or worrying that people are upset with them

• Concern that they’re losing touch with reality

• Low mood and depression

• Rumination

• Depersonalisation – a type of dissociation where they feel disconnected from their mind or body, or like they’re a character they’re watching in a movie

• Derealisation – a type of dissociation where they feel disconnected from the world around them, or like the world isn’t real

• Worrying a lot about things that might happen in the future

• Worrying about when panic attacks might happen

This list can be a good starting point to help spot the signs. But bear in mind that symptoms are different for everyone and may include things that aren’t listed here.

How to help someone cope with anxiety

There’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach. However, the following may help get the conversation flowing and encourage a friend or family member to seek out professional help if needed.

1. Be gentle

It can be really difficult to know what to say and do when someone you care about is experiencing anxiety and/or panic attacks, but there are things you can do that may help.

“Don’t pressure them,” advises Sarah.  "It’s really important to be patient, listen to their wishes and take things at a pace that feels OK for them.”

2. Be understanding

Try to listen to what they’re saying about their unique experience. “Find out as much as you can about anxiety. This will help you understand what they’re going through. Reading  personal stories of anxiety can help, too,” suggests Sarah. Mind is a helpful resource for this.

3. Don’t offer solutions if they don’t want them

“You could offer to listen to your loved one, without feeling the need to propose solutions or say much in response,” suggests Gemma Thickett, senior advisor in the advice and information team at Rethink Mental Illness.

“Sometimes it’s helpful for someone just to talk about their problems. If they aren’t feeling very good, ask if you can do anything to help.”

4. Ask them what support they need

Some things that are usually second nature could become more difficult during this period.

“Offer to help them arrange a doctor’s appointment, either in person or over the phone. Different methods will work for different people with anxiety, depending on what makes them feel anxious,” says Sarah.

“Offer support when they attend appointments, too. You could offer to go with them to their appointments and wait in the waiting room. You can also help them plan what they’d like to talk about with their doctor.”

5. Offer practical support if they’re having a panic attack

A panic attack is a feeling of sudden and intense anxiety. There are some key signs that can be helpful to look out for.

“Physical symptoms of a panic attack include a shortness of breath or choking feeling, sweating and hot flashes or chills and shivering, nausea, dizziness and feeling faint” explains Gemma.

“While they’re in the thick of it, you may not realise your loved one is having a panic attack until they say so. This may be voiced in less obvious ways, such as that they feel like they’re having a heart attack,” continues Gemma.

“Try to stay calm yourself, let them know you’re there for them, and encourage them to close their eyes and breathe deeply and slowly."

“It may help to remind them that symptoms will soon pass. They may find it difficult to voice how they’re feeling or be short with you. Try not to take it personally. Ask what you can do to help them and give them space if they need it.”

Understanding personal triggers can be helpful when supporting someone

6. Understand their triggers

Feeling anxious affects people in different ways and not everyone will be sensitive to the same things.

“Understanding personal triggers can be helpful when supporting someone, as it may enable you to feel confident that you are helping at times of heightened anxiety,” says Gemma.

“There is no right or wrong way to communicate with someone about how they manage their anxiety: use your relationship and knowledge of the person to guide your approach.”

When should someone seek professional help?

Although most of us feel anxious at times, it can become a problem if it begins to feel overwhelming and it’s affecting daily life. Sarah advises someone to seek help if:

• It impacts their ability to live their life as fully as they’d like to

• Their feelings of anxiety are very strong or stick around long term

• Their fears or worries are out of proportion for situations

• They avoid things that may cause them to feel anxious

• Their worries feel very distressing or are hard to control

• They regularly experience symptoms of anxiety or panic attacks

• They find it hard to go about their everyday life or do things that bring them pleasure

If they’ve said that they’re open to it, it could be a good idea for them to consider making an appointment with their GP.

“If you think someone you care about might be experiencing anxiety, you can’t see a doctor on their behalf,” says Sarah. However, “a doctor might give you general information about symptoms or diagnoses. They won’t be able to share any specific advice or details about someone else without their agreement though.”

“Try not to push too hard if they’re not ready to seek help. It may take a while. Be patient, but don’t give up,” recommends Gemma.

There’s also the Boots Online Doctor Depression and Anxiety Treatment service**, where people can have a consultation with a medical professional, who can plan a tailored treatment suited to their needs.

You might be able to get help for someone if you’re worried about their safety. “If someone is an immediate risk to themselves or others, call 999 for urgent support or take them to A&E,” says Gemma.

“In a non-emergency, the NHS also has local urgent mental health helplines, which can provide you or a loved one with advice or offer a referral to a local mental health service.”

It’s important to remember to look after your own mental health, too

And finally, how to set support boundaries

It can be challenging to support an anxious person. “If you feel overwhelmed at times, it’s important to remember to look after your own mental health, too, so that you have the energy, time and space you need to be able to help,” says Sarah.

For example, Sarah suggests:

• Setting boundaries and not taking on too much. Try and decide what your limits are and how much you feel able to help

• Sharing your role with others, if possible.  It’s often easier to support someone as a collective effort

• Talking to someone you trust about how you’re feeling

• Finding support for yourself.  Perhaps through friends or therapy – both can be good outlets for your feelings

*Eligibility criteria applies. Subject to availability and charges apply
**Access to treatment is subject to an online consultation with a clinician to assess suitability. Subject to availability. Charges apply.