Just Let People Be Anxious

A therapist explains how to stay calm without trying to control others

Kathleen Smith
Forge
Published in
3 min readJul 20, 2021

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Source: Canva

As we all relearn how to interact with other humans, many are finding other people’s emotions more contagious than ever. If you’re not paying attention, you might begin to feel over-responsible for their anxiety.

One of the first lessons I learned as a therapist was that the more quickly you try to calm someone down, the less effective you become at helping them. This is because quick reassurance or advice are often more about managing our own distress than they are about being a resource to someone.

So how do you stay in the room with an anxious person without trying to calm them down?

Focus on Being a Less-Anxious Presence

When people are anxious, we often tell them what to think or how to feel. This can calm people down temporarily, but it doesn’t increase a person’s capacity to think for themselves or manage their anxiety. The rush to reassure or soothe can make us more sensitive to each other’s panic, and less able to distinguish our thoughts and emotions from the other person’s.

Instead of reassuring or calming others, you could try:

  • Asking questions that help them think.
  • Offering your own thinking only when asked.
  • Taking calming breaths and relaxing your own body.
  • Simply being present without looking for a quick escape.

Be aware that if you’ve always been quick to reassure your partner or offer advice to a worried friend, people may not be happy when you turn off the anxious helping. But if they can see that you care about them, you’re not going anywhere, and you’re curious about how they are going to deal with a challenge, the resentment often will evaporate.

Work on Self-Regulation and Differentiation

Every anxious individual you encounter is opportunity for you to work on your ability to do two things: self-regulate and differentiate.

Self-regulation is the ability to slow or interrupt your body’s reactions to stress. Many people use meditation, yoga, and other practices…

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Kathleen Smith
Forge
Writer for

Kathleen Smith is a therapist and author of the book Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down.