Ask a Therapist: How do I help my friend tackle anxiety?

Dear Therapist,

My coworker is highly emotional, and every time there’s a new family member, the news of the new member triggers her anxiety. Even now, as she’s still working through holiday fears, it gets in the way of working every day and eats away at my and my wife’s time to do work. How do I help her deal with this while not giving into her anxiety? She is always changing projects at work, but she’s only given me a 20 percent completion rate. We’re older and not asking for the same kind of time to get things done that other people would. Do I just have to be patient?

Please Help,


Dear Jennifer,

This isn’t too much to ask of a friend. It’s simply a pleasure for your coworker to know that you care enough about her that you want to help her work through these concerns.

A friend who helps someone else through difficult feelings is a kind act – and it can be a rewarding, powerful act too.

But a friend who’s just there as a nodding approval or as a source of empathy, might be “useless.” Maybe that’s OK, but it’s not the goal. I believe we all have something in us that makes us kind and helpful, and you can see the visible signs of your coworker’s generosity – the flowers, the boxes, and most of all, your caring face – and see how that’s made you feel.

The goal is twofold. The goal is to continue to do the work of the two things she wants to do right now: Make things work at work and get the thank-you notes from her friends. The goal is to think about how you can contribute. If her goal is to get things done at work, then think about how you can do that – or do some of her projects. But if her goal is to relax at the holidays, maybe a gesture like sending her that email, or hiring a helper to help her clean the apartment is more helpful. What is the goal you want to achieve?

I want you to meet with her colleagues to review the latest issues you are having. Maybe this is an ongoing issue. Maybe this is her “right” response to something, or it is a habitual reaction of hers. Maybe something might be causing it and you’ll want to work on improving it or training her so that it doesn’t happen again. Whatever she’s telling you, tell her. Tell her you want to help her and that she’s a strong friend who should be able to talk to you about this. Then work to try to understand what’s going on, and then focus on making things work for both of you.

She’s not sharing with you the name of her new family member – so we’ll assume that it’s just a problem for her right now. Instead, you might consider using the employee handbook or a personal project guide that the company sends to everyone (that helps you develop and practice your interactions) to try to track what your coworker is going through.

There’s nothing wrong with working hard and doing the work, no matter how many people she sees who are stress or anxiety-driven. What’s wrong is not working through her issues with courage, support, and self-awareness. This is a life-changing kind of struggle, and it’s tough – but not insurmountable. In fact, with love and caring from you and your coworkers, I think you can actually make it work.

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