How To Explain Anxiety To Someone Close To You

Martin Caparrotta
By Martin Caparrotta
Updated on 5 December 2020
Expert Content

If you’re suffering from anxiety, it can be difficult to explain what you’re going through to somebody who’s never experienced it before.

Explaining anxiety is not always an easy thing to do.

So we asked a range of experts to answer give their takes on how to explain anxiety to someone close to you.

Here’s what they said.

Explain How You Feel Using Metaphors

Leah Rockwell, Licensed Professional Counselor

Trying to explain anxiety to someone who has never experienced it is best done through metaphors.

For some people, it may feel like a swarm of bees has taken up residence in their chest or head – there is a constant buzzing, stimulated feeling, alongside a feeling of dread of the unknown regarding what comes next.

For others, they may characterize anxiety as feeling like a weight is upon them; they have heaviness and trepidation about the future that pervades their body and mind.

For people to thoughtfully explain what they are experiencing, they may need to be creative about metaphors with whom the person to whom they want to explain their anxiety will relate.

Oftentimes, others can “get” it when it is put in concrete, bodily terms to which many humans have a natural and visceral reaction, such as bees, weights, etc.

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Choose A Sensible Time To Talk About It

Dr. Patricia Celan, Psychiatry Resident at Dalhousie University

When you’re planning to explain your anxiety to somebody close, ensure you do it at a time when that person is most likely to listen with an open mind. Shortly after an anxiety-influenced conflict would be a less effective time to be heard.

Start by saying which situations trigger you, such as social situations, and point out an example of a recent time when you were triggered.

Continue with explaining what thoughts and feelings go through your head and what physical sensations go through your body.

If the other person seems to believe that your reaction is out of proportion to the trigger, say that you understand that a different person may not feel the same in the same situation, but you have limited control over your anxious reaction, and that it’s a result of your brain misfiring in a “fight or flight” mode while you get filled with adrenaline.

Try to help this person understand by comparing any nervous experiences that he or she may have had.

Explain how this person can support you when you’re feeling anxious, such as being more patient or providing emotional support or tangible advice.

Try To Identify Situations That People Can Relate To

David Fornos, Psychotherapist

Anxiety is both a universal and highly peculiar problem to have.

A good case can be made that all living creatures experience some form of anxiety, but when it reaches a level of clinical significance, it can manifest itself as a paralyzing and suffocating force on one’s wellbeing.

If you yourself suffer from clinical anxiety, and you have loved ones that may not understand what it’s like, you may try to relate to the more universal aspects of anxiety in the human experience.

We’ve all been impatient for something to happen, uneasy in certain social situations, or felt a strong need to move or accomplish something. It’s just a matter of identifying situations that people can relate to.

For example, if you struggle with social anxiety, you may help your friends and family understand it by speaking about a situation, real or imagined, in which a crowd of people are paying close and scrutinizing attention to you.

If your anxiety is more generalized, it could be that your loved ones relate to an experience like being unsure if your car will get towed after you’ve parked or if you’ve left the oven on.

Additionally, explaining anxiety in somatic terms may be useful.

Expressing it as a tightness in the chest, jaw, or hands, excessive sweating, and the overwhelming need to fidget or move around may offer points of compassion and empathy for people who have difficulty understanding anxiety on an intellectual level.

At the end of the day, if your loved ones love you back, they will make an effort to understand what you’re going through, and taking the time and effort to communicate with them could help you maintain and deepen much needed social support during times of psychological distress.

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Think About What You Want To Say In Advance

Linda Mueller, Certified Life Coach

Opening up about your anxiety enables those close to you to understand and support you and ultimately reduces your unease.

While you may find this conversation daunting, here are three steps to make it easier.

1) Get Ready. Think about what you want to say in advance but be willing to just let the conversation flow.

Your reveal may not be a surprise to your loved one. You may just be offering clarification for actions and behaviors that your loved one has observed. Either way, this is a gift to your relationship.

If you are struggling to articulate your feelings, research related articles, blog posts and the like to see if any make you think ‘That’s me!’. You may be inspired and may also find information that you can share with your loved one.

Plan to talk when you can be alone and uninterrupted. Ideally find a time when you are both relaxed, but remember that there is no perfect time so don’t let this delay the conversation. You may even need to schedule the time with your loved one.

2) Make It Happen. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that what you are about to say is a gift to your loved one.

You are opening an ongoing dialogue that is offering understanding and opportunity. If you are feeling anxious as you being the conversation, say so.

Your loved one will then understand if emotions arise during the conversation. They may even be feeling the same. Bringing awareness to everyone’s feelings will help prevent emotions from negatively impacting the conversation.

Keep an open mind and let your loved one absorb and react to what you are saying. Use I/me statements as you speak so that your loved one understands that this is your issue and you aren’t blaming anyone.

Ask for what you need. Your loved one will appreciate being told how you would like to be supported.

3) Celebrate and Continue to Connect. Pat yourself on the back for gifting your loved one with your vulnerability.

Be patient with your loved one if they need time to process the information you’ve shared. Keep the dialog going. Ask if they have questions and continue to explain your feelings, as well. Look for outside resources, if need be.

In addition to written information online, there are many professionals and support groups that can help you and your loved one work through your anxiety.

While this may not be an easy conversation to start, you it for yourself and your loved one. You will both be glad you did.

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Develop Trust In Yourself To Be Able To Cope

Sharon Grossman, Psychologist and Success Coach

Anxiety is an emotion we feel when faced with uncertainty. We are filled with worried thoughts about everything that might go wrong.

Sometimes, we end up in a negative thought loop where we ruminate on these worries.

This gives us the sense that we are being productive, but in truth – worrying doesn’t do anything to change the situation ahead of you or prepare you for it. Instead, it keeps you frozen.

The main thing to note is that when you are anxious, you aren’t in the here-and-now. You are far off into the future and chances are, most of the things you worry about will never actually happen, so all that worry is a waste of energy.

Sometimes people worry when something good happens because they are waiting for the other shoe to drop. This comes from a belief that you are not safe in the world.

In order to shift out of this anxious mindset, there are a couple of things you can do:

1) Identify what thoughts are making you feel anxious and change them to thoughts that when you think them lead you to feeling calm.

2) Ground your energy through by taking some deep breaths. Focus specifically on the exhale to release all that pent up tension.

To keep tabs on your mindset, bring yourself back always to the question, Where am I now: the past, present, or future? If you’re not in the present, it’s an opportunity to shift gears.

Ultimately, the trick is to develop trust in yourself to be able to cope with whatever comes your way.

When you believe this is possible, you no longer have to worry. You can just roll with the punches.

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Try To Explain What You Are Anxious About And How It Affects You

Alex Ly, Associate Marriage and Family Therapist

Talking explaining anxiety to someone can be difficult.

A good way to talk about anxiety is to explain what you are anxious about and how it affects you.

For example, if you struggle with anxiety about money, say you are anxious about money, and how that anxiety comes up in your everyday life.

It makes it easier for others to understand you because you are using real-life scenarios and issues that everyone has to go through rather than a generic psychological diagnosis.

It also makes it easier for others to empathize and help you tangibly.


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Take The Time The Discussion Deserves

Anjani Amladi, Psychiatrist

There is no ‘right’ time to tell someone you care about that you live with anxiety.

It will likely happen when the time feels right, and when there is a level of trust between you that allows for an open conversation.

When you do decide to talk to your partner about your anxiety, be sure to take the time the discussion deserves.

This is not a conversation that should take place in a time crunch, over text, during an argument or in a crisis.

Having a truthful, calm, and distraction free conversation sets you and your partner up for success.

It is also not necessary to have just one conversation. Sometimes these discussions evolve over time, and there shouldn’t be any pressure to complete it in one sitting.

The conversation should include how you experience symptoms of anxiety. Be specific, as people who do not struggle with anxiety may have a hard time understanding how anxiety affects you. Vague language can often lead to confusion and miscommunication.

It is also important to let your partner know how best to support you in times of need, and what may cause your anxiety to worsen.

If you are feeling stuck, practice disclosure with your mental health provider or someone else you trust so you can feel confident when you talk about anxiety with your partner.

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Make Notes Before You Speak To Anyone About Your Anxiety

Sandra Glavan, Anxiety Expert and Founder of Amosuir

I struggled with chronic anxiety for nearly 20 years and when things got unbearable, I had no other choice but to start making some serious changes in my life.

At this point, I started to invest a lot of time and effort reading about mental health, making changes to my diet and lifestyle, and transforming my mindset.

I was very persistent and with time I managed to overcome chronic anxiety. During those two decades, I lost count of the number of people to whom I explained what anxiety feels like.

But what I learned, and took with me from these countless conversations is that:

• it is extremely helpful to make notes before you speak to anyone about your anxiety, and

• to structure your conversation using the following four sections:

1) How Does Anxiety Affect Your Life?

You can use the following prompts to help you. How long have you struggled with anxiety? When did it start? Do you know what caused your anxiety? What aspects of your life are most affected by anxiety, (i.e. work, social, relationships, etc.)?

Have you been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and do you take any medication? What are your anxiety triggers? What’s the worst thing someone could say or do to you when you feel anxious? What are your mental, physical, and/or emotional symptoms?

Give an example, or a scenario, for a few of your symptoms. For example, if one of your symptoms is irritability, a scenario would be something like “I feel irritable at the thought of leaving the house.” Are your symptoms constant or sporadic?

2) What Does Anxiety Feel Like?

In a couple of sentences, and using your own words and / or imagination describe what anxiety feels like.

To give you an example, this is how I described my anxiety at its worst.

“My anxiety has reached a level where it has completely taken over my life. I feel as though it has made its way into every cell of my body and brain, but also every aspect of my existence including work, relationships, education, social life, travel, family, friends, success, finances, career, and health.

“As a result, I can’t seem to do anything without anxiety controlling or influencing my thoughts, actions, and decisions.

“I almost feel like I am my ‘anxiety’s puppet. This is extremely frustrating, exhausting, and unbearable.”

3) What Strategies Do You Use When You Feel Anxious?

Make a list of the things you do when you feel your anxiety rising. These can be either positive or negative.

You can use the use following prompts: Do you have any unhealthy coping strategies such as overeating, overspending, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, or another addiction to help you cope with anxiety?

What anxiety management techniques have you tried and find effective? (i.e. meditation, journaling, exercise, healthy eating, time in nature, and etc.

Have you had therapy and for how long? If you have, has it helped you? If so, in what way?

4) How Someone Close to You Can Support You?

Think about what is the best way a person close to you can support you and your anxious life.

Use the following prompt: Make a list of things they could do or say to you when you feel anxious to help you calm down. For example, you can ask them not to say to you “you worry too much”.

When you prepare answers to all of the above and use this content for your conversation, both you and the person you are talking to will get a lot out of this communication.

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