How A Neuroscientist Helps Loved Ones With Anxiety Without Getting Stressed
We don’t need to tell you that this past year has been rife with mental health challenges—a survey in JAMA found the prevalence of depression symptoms was three times higher during the COVID-19 pandemic than before, and according to a report published by Mental Health America, the number of people seeking help for mental health has drastically increased compared to 2019.
Whether or not you experience these challenges personally, you may know someone who does—and when that person is close to you, it can be difficult to know how to best support them without triggering some stress on your end. Fortunately, addiction psychiatrist and neuroscientist Jud Brewer, M.D., Ph.D., shares a useful strategy for these situations on the mindbodygreen podcast. His recommendation? Don’t act—just listen.
Below, he explains why resisting the urge to act immediately can end up benefitting those we love—and, simultaneously, ourselves.
How to support a loved one with anxiety without feeling overwhelmed.
The idea of taking a moment for yourself when someone is struggling may seem counterintuitive—you just want to help, so how can helping yourself ultimately help them? But the key, says Brewer, is to slow down, take a breath, so you’ll be well-equipped to respond in a calm, actionable way.
“I learned something in medical school: When one of my patients is having a heart attack, the first thing I need to do is take my own pulse,” says Brewer. “That’s not to say [you should] ignore your patient, but it’s to say, ‘Hey, make sure you are not freaking out.’ Because if I start freaking out, I’m going to cause more trouble for my team.”
Meaning, you can’t expect to help others if you’re feeling overwhelmed yourself; as many other experts say, you can’t run on an empty tank. Try to keep yourself grounded, Brewer says—you can try body scans, quick breathwork exercises, and more.
What’s more, Brewer shares that the impulse to jump in immediately can end up backfiring: “If there’s a family member that is anxious, for example, our brain says, ‘Oh, that’s unpleasant. We don’t want them to suffer. I’m going to do something.’ So we often try to do something quickly to make their anxiety go away, which is really about us trying to make ourselves feel better, even subconsciously.”
So instead of offering solutions right off the bat and potentially overwhelming your loved one (and yourself) sit back and listen. Ask follow-up questions, and really try to hear what they’re saying. “I learned a great line in residency,” Brewer adds. ‘”Don’t just do something; sit there.’ My job, instead of jumping up and saying, ‘Let’s fix your anxiety’, is to sit there, so I can really hear what’s happening. And even that helps to create a therapeutic alliance, so that I can step in and help and understand where to start.”
The desire to just act when a loved one is suffering is completely understandable; however, Brewer recommends taking a moment before you respond—it’s important for both parties. The next time someone confides in you with how they’re feeling, consider practicing a grounding technique and truly listening before working together to identify the best next step. It may end up benefiting the both of you.
It’s also important to know you’re never alone. If you or someone you know are struggling and need support, you can always call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
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