With approximately one third of people experiencing a least one anxiety disorder across their lifetime, combined with skyrocketing mental health issues during COVID, there’s a good chance that someone you care about is dealing with anxiety.
When a loved one is struggling with anxiety, it can be a frustrating experience. You want to make them feel better by encouraging them not to focus on the anxiety or by telling them to see things in a more rational light. However, sometimes your efforts fall flat or even make things worse.
Polarization sometimes occurs in these situations, in which the person with anxiety gets increasingly more anxious and upset in trying to convince the other person that their anxiety is legitimate. In turn, the support person gets more and more frustrated and annoyed with them.
A different strategy is to provide validation and empathy, which can go a long way in helping someone manage their anxiety. When you validate someone’s experience, you acknowledge the elements of truth or legitimacy in what they are thinking and feeling. As a result, it can make the person feel heard and understood, which is always important in the context of any relationship. It also enables them to better hear your rational explanation.
Let's illustrate with an example. Consider these two responses to someone experiencing social anxiety:
- Invalidating response: "You worry too much about what people think about you, I’m sure what you said in the meeting is fine."
- Validating: "I definitely know what you mean. It can be really stressful when you say something that seems to fall flat in a meeting. However, chances are people aren’t thinking about it as much as you are and have likely moved on to dealing with their own issues."
The person is likely to feel more supported by the second response. In turn, they will be able to move past their anxiety more quickly than if they got the first response.
Find the Kernel of Truth
You might be thinking, what if it is a situation in which they are being completely irrational? Or, I don’t want them to think it is OK for them to be getting anxious in this situation! Even if you think the person is completely overreacting, or has no evidence to back up their anxiety, there is almost always a kernel of truth in every anxious reaction. No matter how big or small that kernel might be, it will go a long way if you can identify it. You can then use that as part of your validating response.
Consider these two possible responses to an episode of health anxiety:
- Invalidating: "You are being crazy—there’s no way this headache means you have COVID. You’ve barely left the house over the past two weeks!"
- Validating: "Given how overwhelming this pandemic is, I understand why physical sensations scare you. Since we haven’t had any indoor or mask-less contact with anyone in the past two weeks, I think the chances that you were exposed is close to zero."
In the second response, the kernels of truth are: 1) headaches could be a symptom of COVID, and 2) even though their actual risk is extremely low, they are feeling vulnerable because of the pandemic. By acknowledging these facts and by not shutting them down, the second response enables the anxious person to be in a better position to more clearly assess actual risk, rather than spiral into more anxiety.
Relate to Your Own Experience
Finally, if you have struggled with anxiety in a similar situation, you can share that with your loved one. Consider this example in dealing with a flying phobia:
- Invalidating: "The plane isn’t going to crash—just take a deep breath and get on the plane and don’t think about it."
- Validating: "I can relate to that, I’ve felt a little anxious here and there about flying. At the same time, keep in mind that traveling by plane is actually safer than traveling by car."
In situations where you have had a related type of anxious response (even if less severe), you can demonstrate validation by communicating that your loved one is not alone.
As you can see in all of these examples, the validating statements convey both empathy and understanding; they also gently infuse some rational thinking. The chances are now better that their anxiety will decrease.
So, the next time someone in your life comes to you in an anxious state and you have the urge to just shut them down, try taking a moment to validate their experience. It just might help their anxiety, and might even benefit your relationship.