Anxiety is a useful part of the human experience. For instance, anxiety may motivate us to complete important tasks or help us attune to threats in our environment. In evolutionary times, anxiety helped to ensure our survival as a species. It was our feelings of anxiety that enabled us to notice danger in the environment and to utilize a “fight or flight” response.
However, when an individual’s anxiety begins to interfere with everyday functioning, he/she may be struggling with an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are highly common in our society, therefore it is crucial for clinicians to have an understanding of how to help individuals who may be struggling.
As a psychotherapist, I often use elements of dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) in my work with clients. I find both of these treatments to be highly effective in helping individuals who are struggling with anxiety.
Regardless of the treatment approach, there are a few key components that I believe can be useful in working with people with anxiety disorders. The following are three quick tips for helping people who are struggling with anxiety.
1. Help them to become aware of their anxious thoughts.
It can be useful to first have clients begin to simply pay attention to their anxious thoughts without judgment. This practice can help them to cultivate an awareness of the “stories” that their mind is telling them. Additionally, in doing so, they are beginning to externalize their thoughts. This result is helpful because they can start to see the thoughts as separate from themselves.
I often tell patients that we have thousands of thoughts per day, however, not everything that we think is true. You don’t need to believe everything that you think.
2. Collaborate to create some helpful coping statements.
Another strategy that I often use with clients is collaborating with them to come up with some helpful coping statements. For instance, let’s say that a person is anxious about an upcoming test. Perhaps he is having the thought, “I’m going to fail and I won’t be able to handle that.” I would work with the client to come up with a more helpful coping statement. For example, we might come up with the statement, “I did the best that I could to prepare and no matter what happens, I am proud of myself.”
3. Explore how they can practice self-compassion.
Self-compassion is simply treating ourselves with the same kindness that we would a loved one. Practicing self-compassion is especially important to use when we feel that we have made a mistake or fallen short in some way. Often people with anxiety will “beat themselves up” over experiencing anxiety or not doing something “perfectly.”
However, I share with clients that when we “beat ourselves up” it often serves to make us feel even worse. Instead, I explore with them how they can practice self-compassion through their self-talk and self-care. For instance, part of self-compassion is the sense of “common humanity.”
I will often share with patients that all humans make mistakes and are imperfect. This sentiment helps to validate that they are not alone in “making mistakes” and that it is okay to do so.
The Bottom Line
Ultimately, it’s important to express to clients that the goal is not to try to “get rid” of their anxiety. First off, it’s impossible to completely get rid of anxiety. Additionally, anxiety actually serves some adaptive functions in our lives. Instead, the aim is to help them to learn how to change their relationship to anxiety and reclaim their lives.
With access to appropriate treatment and support, individuals with anxiety disorders can go on to live productive and meaningful lives.