How to Help (and Deal With) an Anxious Person

Anxiety can be contagious: Tips for how to help you and them

Posted May 10, 2017

Maybe it’s your 10-year-old son, Matt, and the dreaded science project. A week out and he is already in a dither – what should he do it, he doesn’t know, he doesn’t know where to start, he can’t do it. He’s overwhelmed, fluttering and complaining and sinking deeper and deeper into his anxious hole.

Or maybe it’s not your son but a new employee, Sara, who is banging on your door every 5 minutes with a question – “Can I just ask you something really quick?” – about mileage forms or a client-call 3 minutes ago. The questions never end and are actually getting worse.

Or you and your husband, John, are taking a trip to see your sister in St. Louis and you can tell John is already ramped up. He wants to get the car packed the night before, he wants to get up at 4:30 am so you leave town and beat the traffic, and you know you better not run late or he’ll be irritable and ugly the whole way there.

Or you notice that every time your mother comes over she can’t resist making some negative comment about what you’re wearing or questions why the kids are having a snack when dinner is just 2 hours away. The micromanaging drives you crazy.

Anxiety, we all have it, but some of us handle it better than others, and those that don’t can be hard to be around or live with. But you don’t need to feel like the victim or martyr here. There’s a lot you can do to help them (and yourself) out. But first let’s look at the relational patterns of anxiety:

Faces of Anxiety 1: Overwhelmed

What we have described here are two of most common types. Matt and Sara are those who easily get overwhelmed by anxiety. They flutter, they ask questions, they can’t get their act together and move forward. And they come to you looking for you to bail them out in some way – help with the idea for the science project or help do it; answer the questions about the job the moment they pop into their heads. You feel like they are always coming at you.

The pull: The emotional pull here is to step in and help out. But there are side-effects: sometimes feeling like you’re doing a bit too much of the heavy lifting, or feeling frustrated that they can’t handle this themselves, or resentful because you either feel a bit manipulated or that you’re not appreciated for your efforts. Or all-of-the-above.

The pattern problem: What is actually happening, by your kind efforts, is that Matt and Sara are unconsciously training you to become their tranquilizer, their Ativan. Each time you step up and give Matt ideas for his project or Sara an answer to her question the moment she wants it, they each feel immediately better – it works, their anxieties go down. Unfortunately, given the mechanism of anxiety, their tolerance for anxiety goes down as well, and they come to rely on you more and more often. You get increasingly weary, and their self-confidence, by never doing things on their own, never gets any traction.

Faces of Anxiety 2: The Control Freak

John and your mom can get overwhelmed by anxiety too, but they long ago learned keep it at bay through control. John mentally mapped out 2 weeks ago how the trip to St. Louis should go. By having a plan in place and getting those involved (you) to comply with it, he can relax. He just needs to make sure you comply with it, hence the irritation.

Ditto for your mom. She may by personality just be a critical person, but more likely she is generally anxious and worries…about everything. This is the nature of anxiety, making everything a priority, and her comments are driven by the worry. Like John, if she can just get you to do what she wants (the clothes, the snack), she can relax.

The pull: The pull here is to accommodate – walk on eggshells, just get it right, pack up the car, get up at 4:30, be out the door on time, and John will be fine. Or push back – snap back at your mom about the clothes, or at John for rushing you along, and spending the entire trip or visit in irritable silence.

The pattern problem: The accommodation is another becoming the tranquilizer – it works, but it will get worse. Or snapping back winds up with hurt feelings, they blaming you, thinking you are too sensitive or rigid; you feeling micromanaged, treated like a child, and accumulating resentment.

Breaking the Patterns

We’re looking for a middle ground for both these types between the F-you and the accommodation, the doing-too-much and not-doing-anything at all. Here’s how to do help in a better way:

Decide on your own boundaries. What this means is you stepping and deciding in advance what you are and are not willing to do in these situations – not out of your own fear and anxiety, but as an adult with your own values and vision. Before that science project begins to round the corner (or some horrendous math assignment), before you get that knock on the door, the taking a trip, the mom coming over, decide what you are willing and not willing to do, in your heart and rational brain.

This may mean that you are going to talk to the teacher about Matt’s struggles with homework and see if she can step in and get you out of it; or no, you don’t mind helping him plan it out once he does have an idea. You may decide that it’s fine answering your supervisee’s questions because you know she will eventually settle down and that you want to be seen as reliable; or no, you aren’t fine at all and need to set some limits. Or you may realize as a compassionate partner that John just does not travel well, or that your mom is just who she is and you don’t need to make a fuss about her comments; or you do. 

The point is to stop feeling like a victim or martyr, and that comes from clarifying your own boundaries.

Be proactive. The other reason you feel frustrated and like a victim or martyr is that you are constantly in a reactive mode, with them always coming at you. The antidote to this is you being proactive – go on offense rather than defense. Right now, Matt, Sara, John and your mom are controlling the process. The middle-ground goal here is not your way or their way (the content, the what), but you controlling the process (the how).

What this translates into is helping on your terms, not theirs. This not only gives you more control, but also helps them manage their anxiety before it reaches the level where it is too difficult for them to rein it in. This is where you check in with Sara first thing in the morning before her anxiety is up about any questions she may have – you going to her rather than she coming to you. This is where you ask Matt on Sunday whether he is worrying about anything at school this coming week. You are offering support before it is quite needed, and your doing so helps keeps their anxieties lower.

Be preemptive. This is an extension of being proactive. Here you talk with Matt or his teacher about Matt’s upcoming science projects before it gets on his emotional radar, or you talk about the trip and how you are envisioning it before John has already solidified on his own plan. Here you talk to Sara about how you conduct supervision and her holding off on questions and bring them to your supervisory sessions.

By being preemptive you are once again having some control while being sensitive. But an added benefit is that it helps controlling folks from getting easily rattled. Folks like John or your mom tend to get tunnel vision about what they think should happen, and get upset when these expectations aren't met. By talking to John way in advance about the trip or about any new ideas you've been brainstorming about, he has time to process the new information and adjust his thinking. Do the same for your mom – let her know what is going to be happening for the kid’s birthday party so she doesn’t get rattled when her expectations are not being met.

Talk about anxiety. It’s helpful to talk about the elephant in the room. Here you have a separate, non-St. Louis, conversation about the fact that John seems to get anxious about car trips, or that Matt seems to easily get overwhelmed by some of his school work, or that your mom seems to worry about your appearance. You want to bring this up when you are calm, but also want to talk about the larger pattern – the school work, the flutter about the trip, your mom's micromanagement – and about your concern about what you see as anxiety and worry. You also want to deepen the conversation and understand what is beneath their concern.

The point here is to help the other person see what they often cannot – that their anxiety is what is driving their actions and thinking, and that there is a larger problem you want to help them with.

Solve the problem, set some bottom lines. Finally, if there is a problem that persists, you do need to zero in the relationship problem itself. Though you realize, you say to John, that he gets anxious about trips, you need him to be less rigid and irritable – that you’ll offer to drive, or be responsible for letting others know if you’re possibly late, but it's got to stop. That you say to Sara that you are concerned that she easily get overwhelmed, that that must be terribly draining for her, but you want her to write down her questions and bring them to your supervisory sessions, rather than banging on your door. You say to your mother that even though you know she gets anxious about the clothes or the kids, worries about what others might think or the kid's health, you are an adult, proud of the person she has helped you become, and that you would absolutely want her to stop making her comments.

The challenge here is not replicating the problem -- you don't want to be as micromanaging of your mom as she is to you, or as rigid with John as he can be. Stick to the 2-3 things, not 20-30, in order to better make your point.

And expect that they will not be happy if you take strong stand. They may ramp up and get more anxious, or try and make you feel guilty, or get angry and defensive. That's to be expected and okay. They are doing this because you broke the pattern and their anxiety has increased. Calmly hold your ground.

While this may feel like a lot to do, the path is clear – be proactive, have your own plan, speak up, solve problems. Don’t be the victim, the martyr.

Be the caring adult.