How Can I Ease My Friend’s Anxiety?

I had my first anxiety attack on a flight from Hawaii. Shortly after takeoff, the passenger in front of me put his seat back. I was already anxious, and the thought of having a stranger’s head in my lap for five hours pushed me over the edge. I made quite the scene: sobbing, hyperventilating … the whole works. It was dramatic enough that the woman next to my husband asked him, “Hon, is she pregnant? Because, if not, I’ve got something I can give her.”

While that was my first panic attack, it was most certainly not my first encounter with anxiety. When I look back on my childhood, I can still remember the constant sense of overwhelming doom. Even if I couldn’t name its source, I always felt as if something bad were lurking nearby, ready to pounce.

Years, maturity, and pharmaceuticals have helped a lot, but I’ll never forget what it felt like to struggle with severe anxiety, and I still like to read about how other people have fought this particular battle. That’s why a meme going around on Facebook recently caught my attention. It said that you could ward off a panic attack by focusing on X things you could hear, Y things you could see, Z things you could smell, etc.

For me, however, that would be like throwing gasoline on a fire. Most of my anxiety comes from misophonia, the literal meaning of which is “hatred of sounds.” Eating sounds — crunching, chomping, smacking, even swallowing — fill me with a sense of panic and disgust so intense it’s hard to describe.

What does that have to do with learning how you can help a friend who has anxiety? By understanding that it’s a very individual struggle. What works for one person may make another’s stress even worse. If you really want to help a friend, you have to ask. But don’t ask your friend what she’s feeling anxious about, because she may not know — or she may know, but be embarrassed to say. (Believe me, I’m never jumping up and down to admit how terrified I am of a crunchy apple.)

Instead, ask her what you can do: “You seem to be feeling very anxious. What can I do to help you feel more comfortable?” I’d probably tell you that you could best help me by spitting out your gum. Somebody else may want to move to a different seat in the theater or take the stairs instead of an elevator. You don’t have to understand your friend’s anxiety, and you don’t have to understand how fulfilling the request could possibly make her feel better. All you really need is an open heart, an open mind, and the conviction that understanding is not a prerequisite for kindness.

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