Let's start a productive conversation.

By Ashley Mateo
November 25, 2020
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Anxiety is nothing new to many Americans—nearly seven million adults suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), making it the most common mental health disorder in the country, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. But that was before 2020.

Now, we’re not only coping with a deadly pandemic that has swept through the US on a massive scale, but people are protesting widespread issues around systemic racism, facing major environmental threats like wildfires, and dealing with complete upheaval in the political world. No wonder 62% of Americans feel more anxious than they did at this time last year, a recent poll by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) found—that’s nearly double the typical percentage over the past three years.

“No one was prepared for this, and so no one knew the coping skills for it,” Alyza Berman, a licensed clinical social worker and founder and clinical director of The Berman Centerin Atlanta, tells Health. 2020 hasn’t completely erased the stigma around talking about mental health, but it’s certainly helping to level the playing field. “Now, if you turn to someone next to you and say ‘I’m anxious,’ they’re not going to question you or scoff at you; they’re going to say ‘me, too,’” says Berman.

Still, talking about anxiety can be hard, especially when everyone has different triggers and comfort levels when it comes to things like eating indoors, traveling across the country, sending their kids to daycare or school, or even just wearing a mask. These tips can help make navigating those conversations just a little bit easier.

How to productively express your own anxiety

In an era when nearly every decision—from going to the grocery store to reuniting with family for the holidays—carries a certain level of risk, it’s crucial that you’re able to talk about your anxieties with those who matter most to you. Not only will it give you some relief, but it can keep tensions from flaring and help other people understand where you’re at emotionally.

It’s not just enough to say, “I’m nervous about seeing you” or “I’m afraid to travel,” says Berman. “The best way to tell someone you’re anxious about a certain scenario is to explain why." That "why" goes behind your immediate emotions to shed some light on your thought processes—i.e. “I’m nervous about seeing you because you recently traveled to a COVID-19 hotspot” or “I’m afraid to travel because the health officials say airports up the risk of exposure.”

How you explain yourself is crucial, too, Stephanie Newman, PhD, a psychologist based in New York City, tells Health.  “I statements—i.e. ‘I feel this’ versus ‘you’re being this’—frames your feelings in a way that people are open to hearing,” she explains. Think: “I don’t want to come to Thanksgiving dinner because Dr. Fauci warned against small gatherings” versus “You’re not taking COVID-19 safety precautions seriously because you’re inviting more than 10 people over.”

If someone responds in a judgemental way or tries to minimize your anxiety, attempting to understand where that person is coming from can keep the conversation productive, says Berman. Imagine telling your friend you don’t feel comfortable meeting up in a large group, even outdoors, and they tell you you’re overreacting: “I always say, ‘I’m curious. Can you please explain why you feel that way? I don’t understand,’” she says. “Then it doesn’t feel like an attack—because when a person feels attacked, that’s when they get defensive.”

It’s important to set a limit for yourself, too, so things don't devolve into an argument, says Newman. If you’re not willing to dine inside someone’s house—even if they’ve been isolating or have been tested recently—that’s your right. Decide on your bottom line beforehand, and if someone keeps pushing, “say ‘I totally understand that you might be a little more liberal with this, but right now, I’m not,’” says Berman. “Once you say ‘I hope you can understand where I’m coming from,” it’s not an attack, it’s not aggressive, and it’s hard for someone not to be empathetic—unless they’re completely irrational.”

How to empathetically acknowledge someone else’s anxiety

It takes a lot for someone to open up about anxiety, and your job isn’t to be their therapist but rather an empathetic listener. “There’s such a fear of the unknown, and people’s anxieties are shifting not just day-to-day, but throughout the day as well,” says Berman. “Their reasoning for doing one thing or not doing anything may not make sense, so just listen non-judgmentally and treat them with respect and dignity.”

The most important thing you can do (even if you disagree!) is validate their feelings, says Newman. That can be as simple as saying something like, “that must be so scary for you,” I’m here for you,” or “how can I help you?” What you don’t want to do when someone is being vulnerable with you is immediately tell them they have nothing to worry about, that they’re wrong, or try to provide a solution. Most people aren’t looking for advice right now, just support.

That can be hard when tensions are high and you feel fundamentally different from whoever you’re talking to (like, say, you’ll go insane if your town switches to completely virtual schooling, whereas your best friend doesn’t even feel comfortable sending her kids to socially distanced classes). Instead of taking anyone’s stance personally, try to remember that no one is at their best right now, says Newman.

Chances are, the person confessing their anxiety about any given situation still loves you, wants to see you, and wishes there was an easier solution. “But we all have to lower our expectations,” says Newman. “We’ve had months of losses—from family members to jobs and insurance to life experiences—and everyone is handling that stress differently.” At the end of the day, empathy is all about being able to step into someone else’s shoes, even if it’s just temporarily.

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