How to Help a Worrier: What Does and Does Not Work

Community Member

One description which describes me well is that of a worrywart. I was a worrier as a child. I am a worrier as an adult. I even worry about worrying. Am I worrying too much? Am I not worried enough? What helps me the most when I suffer from an excessive bout of worrying is a good sounding board. I have found that there are some friends, loved ones, and family members who can provide this comfort and strength when you are in over your head with worry or anxiety. A good therapist can also be invaluable in such instances to help you work on overall strategies to decrease worrisome thoughts. I want to make a special note that it can be difficult for the friend, spouse, or family member to know what to say or do with a chronic worrier. In this post we are going to discuss how to provide focus and comfort to the chronic worrier and also things you want to avoid doing or saying so that you don't make the situation any worse.

Here are some things that generally don't help the chronic worrier:

  • It doesn't help to tell a worrier that there is nothing to worry about.

You may think that this is comforting but all it does is to cause the recipient to feel dismissed and as though their worry and emotions are not real. Neither does it help for you to make fun of their worry or tell them they are "making mountains out of molehills." A lot of worry may seem irrational but the person is still suffering from that emotion. If you make them feel bad about themselves by dismissing their worry, the conversation lines will be closed and this person will no longer trust you enough to talk about their worries.

  • It doesn't help to discuss worst case versions of the person's worry.

Several months back I took a trip to my hometown and I rode the plane. I am terrified of plane travel but I have been trying to overcome my fear by making such trips anyway. The day of my flight back there were some storm clouds and wind. I was getting more and more worked up as the time approached for my flight because one of the things that makes me so afraid of plane travel is turbulence or flying through rough weather. I was becoming so phobic that I was actually thinking of getting a train or greyhound bus to take me home. I talked about my fright to my sister who I was visiting at the time. (You know I love you if you are reading this) My sister is a great storyteller embellishing stories with great dramatic effect. So I got to hear about a plane ride she had where a child was trying to break open one of the windows. I got to hear about another child who was carrying a pet sewer rat in her coat pocket. And I got to hear how one of the planes she was on had such bad turbulence that the plane dipped and made her feel like she was falling hundreds of feet. Great stories but not really helpful when I was already such a nervous wreck already.

  • Reciting facts and statistics doesn't always help the worrier.

As a person who fears plane travel I have heard the same thing over and over from well meaning people who tell me, "You have way more of a chance of dying in a car accident than on a plane." Well you know what? I don't want to think about dying at all! And the person is assuming that death is the only thing I am afraid of up there on the plane. I am afraid the height, I am afraid of the sounds, the speed of the plane and the entire sensory experience. Telling me statistics doesn't really give me any comfort at all.

What does help the worrier?

I think it helps to illustrate what helps with a recent story from my personal life. As many of us know, Hurricane Irene came to town this weekend. I was watching the news non-stop and found myself increasingly worried about what would come. It ended up being far less severe of a storm than the weather forecasters predicted and this is a very good thing. But I was starting to fret and worry prior to the storm and this is where friends can really help. I had written to Eileen Bailey, our Community Leader here, who is also my friend. I confessed that I was fussing about this storm and was becoming anxious. She responded, "Is all that worrying helping any?" Her question stopped me in my tracks and made me laugh. No it wasn't helping and I knew that but it was helpful to be reminded.

  • It can be helpful to remind the worrier that all the energy invested in worrying will not help to lessen the anxiety or make the situation better.

"Think of this as an adventure," Eileen also suggested jokingly. This made me laugh as well but somehow it made me feel better. A hurricane is a very serious event and not to be taken lightly. Yet my friend's reframing this event made me take pause enough to forget my worrying for at least that minute. Calling it a disaster when we didn't know how bad things might get wasn't going to help my anxiety very much. And a little humor helped to lighten my tense mood.

  • It can be helpful to find a little levity during a stressful situation.

I told Eileen that I was trying to keep busy making preparations such as getting batteries, food, and water just in case. And the focus on preparations made me feel better.

  • It can be helpful to get the worrier to focus on concrete actions that can lessen the anxiety of the fearful situation or event. All that energy for worrying can be better spent upon constructive action. Nobody can control something like a hurricane but we can take actions to increase our chances of safety.

During this same email conversation I talked about my real worry of how to explain about hurricanes to my son who has autism. I was also worried how to just get him through it especially if there was a power outage. I talked about finding some information on the web for children about hurricanes. And then Eileen suggested creating a time grid to mark off each hour that passed until the storm was predicted to be over. She said the time grid would probably help both me and my son feel better as we checked off the boxes and know that the storm would eventually end.

  • It can be helpful to give your worried friend or loved one suggestions of how to cope during the stressful situation or event.

Lastly, Eileen simply asked me to write to her the next day to make sure I was okay. As it turns out, we were absolutely fine. The storm was not as bad as predicted and for us it turned out to be some rain and gusty winds but no damage of any sort. Not only were we lucky but I also managed to survive my anxious moments.

  • Telling the worrier that you care about them and checking on them to see how they are doing can mean a huge difference.

Nobody can take your worries away but some simple things can help a lot such as showing compassion and care.

Thanks Eileen and everyone else who helped to ease my worries during the Hurricane Irene weekend!

Now we would like to hear from you. What sorts of things do not help you when you are anxious and worried? What things can people do or say to help you get through an anxious time? We would love to hear about your experiences.