How to Empathize with Anxiety: 3 Easy Tips

by | Jun 20, 2024 | Feelings, Healthy Relationships

On a recent podcast call, someone asked:

“I’m getting the feeling that if I empathize with anxiety, I’m actually making it worse.  Can that be true?”

Surprisingly, it can!

It matters what we emphasize when we’re providing empathy to someone experiencing anxiety.

Here are three tips to empathize with anxiety:

Step 1: Empathize with the Needs Underneath the Story

When we are working with anxiety in particular, its essential to recognize and respond to the underlying needs that are driving our behaviors and narratives, without becoming entangled in the emotional distress and fear that might be accompanying these needs.  I’m not suggesting repressing, suppressing or ignoring them – acknowledging the anxiety and fear can be grounding and affirming – but we want to keep our focus on the underlying needs, like those for security, predictability, acceptance and understanding – because that’s where we find our power to make things better and have agency.

Step 2: Stay Focused in the Present Moment

Keeping your attention and focus on the present moment can be profoundly helpful because anxiety often grows when worrying about the future or ruminating over the past. By focusing on the present, you anchor yourself in the reality of the moment, which is usually far less threatening than the fantasies and nightmares that anxiety tends to generate. You can also try mindful breathing, observing your immediate environment, or engaging in a tactile activity can help center your thoughts and emotions in the now. As you practice this kind of presence, you cultivate a space of calm and clarity amidst the storm of anxiety, fostering a more grounded and supportive environment for both yourself and others.  All healing happens in the here and now, never in the there and then.

Step 3: Brainstorm Strategies to Meet the Needs Beneath the Anxiety

Finally, once we focus on our needs, and get ourselves into this present moment, we are empowered to find present moment, actionable strategies that might actually help us to meet our needs – which in turn, lowers our anxiety levels.

When you’re feeling anxious, it really helps to focus on strategies that directly tackle your needs. Anxiety can make your thoughts feel all jumbled up and leave you feeling stuck. By figuring out what you really need—like feeling safe, being good at what you do, or staying connected with people—and focusing on ways to meet those needs, you can guide yourself through those anxious moments. For example, if you’re stressing out and need a confidence boost, doing something you’re good at or getting some positive feedback can make a big difference. Or if you’re feeling lonely and anxious, arranging regular catch-ups with friends or colleagues can lift your spirits. Keeping your eye on these personal strategies not only helps steady your emotions but also builds up your ability to handle stress better over time.

If a friend or co-worker of yours is anxious about meeting a deadline and expresses this by repeatedly asking for updates or reassurances, empathizing with the needs (instead of amplifying their anxieties) might involve acknowledging their need for reassurance and their desire for a sense of control and agency. However, you’d mindfully stop yourself from mirroring their anxiety or becoming anxious yourself about the situation. Instead, maintaining a supportive and constructive approach, you help them to find a strategy to address the underlying need (such as by clarifying expectations or providing resources) without escalating the emotional intensity.

By focusing on the needs, you can be supportive and responsive to the real issues at hand, and help them with both effective problem-solving and emotional support, while also protecting your own emotional state by not absorbing or reflecting their anxiety.

If you’re interested in hearing more, you can listen to the entire conversation, or jump to that exact exchange using these show notes:

  • 1:51  My friend is dismissive when I try to talk about my body.
  • 15:24  Our bodies have often been used as tools of oppression.
  • 17:34  I’m confused, and you get defensive when I ask questions.
  • 35:56  Dad, is your offer to pay for college still open?
  • 41:45  Is empathy increasing the anxiety?
  • 46:57  How can I stay grounded in myself when I’m falling for you?.

Looking for even more support on working with anxiety?  Check out How to Deal with the Stress and Anxiety of These Times.

Where do you struggle with anxiety?  I’d love to know.  Leave a comment below.

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