Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. If you are experiencing anxiety or other mental illnesses, please reach out to your family doctor or another mental health professional.
The first time I had a panic attack, I was standing in front of my entire French class. A flimsy pink poster was between my fingers. My gaze drifted across a room full of my fellow fifteen and sixteen-year-olds, hoping to find a familiar face. I inhaled deeply, then exhaled — uttering a prayer as I did so.
Lord, don’t let me mess this up.
I read the poster-board out loud. I had practised all weekend for this presentation, scouring YouTube videos about how to correctly annunciate the French r. As I noticed the sound of my voice, I trembled.
“Can I have a moment?” I asked my teacher, tears edging my words and snagging at the back of my throat.
She looked unimpressed. She wasn’t my favourite teacher, to say the least. She terrified me. And she seemed to favour only the most popular, outgoing students, a group whom I didn’t belong to.
My head began spinning. I couldn’t speak. I could scarcely say my name. I felt my face heat, and I wanted more than anything to sink into the floor. A snicker ricocheted across the room, followed by another, then another. Tears began pouring down my face. Finally, my teacher allowed me to excuse myself.
At lunchtime, I was still shaken by the experience. As a high-achieving student, I was terrified that my inability to finish the presentation would prevent me from maintaining my 4.0 GPA. I was even more terrified that people had seen me break down for no apparent reason.
When I told my friends what happened, they were all concerned. But the way one friend reacted to the situation has resonated with me to this day. She listened, and then pulled me into an embrace.
“It’s okay,” she consoled me. “Tell me what you think would make you feel better about this.”
Those words might not seem like much to you, but to a person with anxiety, they are comforting. Too often, we dismiss our friends and family members who confide in us about their mental health struggles. That is why it is so vitally important to try our best to be there for them.
This might seem obvious, but when someone approaches you about their anxiety, listening to them is essential. Ask them what might make them feel better, as my friend did. Listening can help you gain a better understanding of what your friend is anxious about and how you can care for them.
If you are busy with something else at the moment, either put it to the side or ask the friend if you can meet with them at another time. The second option isn’t the most ideal, but sometimes, it cannot be avoided.
2. Don’t invalidate their feelings
Appreciate the fact that your friend had the courage to share their mental health battle with you. This shows that they trust you enough to share something highly personal with you. It also shows their own strength in being vulnerable.
Although the stigma around mental health has diminished significantly in the past few years as more and more people talk about it, it is still prevalent. People with mental illnesses are still discriminated against and made to feel inferior, often preventing them from seeking help.
That is why it is so crucial that you do not dismiss their struggle. Don’t tell them to lighten up or that they’re being overdramatic about whatever situation sparked their anxiety. If they could stop being anxious, they would have done this already.
Do let them know these feelings will eventually pass. There is help for them, and they won’t feel like this forever.
3. Connect them with resources
You are not a therapist or a trained professional (unless you actually are). It takes years of professional training to provide quality care for individuals with mental illnesses.
Thankfully, there are plenty of resources for people struggling with anxiety. Either you can encourage your friend to visit their family doctor, or another clinic or established organization. If your friend is worried about attending alone, offer to accompany them to their appointment.
Ensure your friend knows there is no harm in getting help. Once they meet with a doctor or a counsellor, they will work with that trained professional to figure out next steps that work for them. Plenty of people struggle with anxiety, and plenty have learned how to overcome it.