The population of the world can be divided into two types of people: Those who are anxious and those who are not. The inner experience of an individual living with anxiety is difficult to comprehend, especially for those in the “are not” category. Steps toward providing helpful assistance to people in one’s life who experience anxiety can only occur with accurate knowledge of anxiety itself.

My hope is that the description I provide below, based upon my work with such individuals in clinical practice, can provide a foundation for empathic engagement and validating interactions with those for whom anxiety poses an issue.

Possibility vs. Probability

Albert Ellis, founder of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, explained that “Anxiety, basically, is a set of uncomfortable feelings and action tendencies that make you aware that unpleasant happenings – meaning things that go against your desires – are happening or are likely to happen and warn you that you’d better do something about them.”

As non-anxious individuals maneuver their way through life, they often assess the probability of whether or not a dangerous or unwanted occurrence might happen. This determines both practical and emotional responses. While, at times, this assessment is deliberate, often it is subconscious and automatic. Based upon the subjective information gleaned, accurate or not, a person determines the degree of security and can then act accordingly. While there are unlimited possibilities to outcomes in life, it is the probability of the outcome which determines whether it warrants action and the degree to which a response is necessary.

For someone with anxiety, the ability to determine probability is somewhat miscalibrated. For this reason, their reactions to certain possibilities may not be in line with those of other non-anxious individuals. The film Dumb and Dumber (1994) has many quote-worthy scenes, which I have found ample opportunity to reference over the years. One scene that has strong resonance, and high relevance to the above, is a dialogue between Lloyd Christmas (played by Jim Carrey) and Mary Swanson (played by Lauren Holly), during which Lloyd endeavors to gauge the potential for his successfully courting of Mary. The dialogue is as follows:

Lloyd: I want to ask you a question, straight out, flat out, I want you to give me an honest answer……What are my chances?
Mary: Not good.
Lloyd: You mean, not good, like 1 out of 100?
Mary: I’d say more like one out of a million.
Lloyd: [long pause] So you’re telling me there’s a chance!

While, for Lloyd the statement “there’s a chance” was a source for elation and excitement, for individuals with anxiety “there’s a chance” represents a reality that fills them with a sense of dread, fear, and impending doom. Given the possibility, how could one ignore the potential? On an emotional level, the fact that the possibility is remote does nothing to allay concerns. They react to possibility independent of probability. This can then result in an emotional spiral which, experientially, serves to reinforce the importance of taking the possibility seriously.

The Greatest Consequences

Anxiety levels tend to be proportionate with the severity of potential consequences. This is so even when the potential for actualization of these results are remote. As such, areas of health are often a focus of anxiety, as illness or death are outcomes that are highly unwanted. This is exponentially increased when there is a great deal of vague, conflicting or contradictory information pertaining to the health issues (as has been the case with regard to Covid-19).

For religious individuals living with anxiety, matters of religious practice can often be a source of stress. Since notions and descriptions of divine punishment, retribution, or consequences in the afterlife are often ambiguous, speculative, and conflicted, a large opening for possibilities of outcome remains. This is true, even for someone with strong religious conviction.  Their anxiety in this realm is due to uncertainty of outcome, not deficiency in faith. Their response is based on the rule at the foundation of the anxiety response: Increased potential leads to increased anxiety.

Assisting Without Fixing

Support of an anxious individual begins with the acceptance of a dual reality; one belonging to the non-anxious individual and one belonging to their anxious counterpart. This is in contrast to the “fixing response” often taken. For non-anxious people, others’ anxiety-based responses are often viewed as an over-the-top emotional reaction to a baseless fear or an illegitimate concern. Since, in their mind, these reactions are based upon the anxious individual’s misunderstanding or misinterpretation of information, the approach taken to helping is often cognitive in nature. Specifically, it is guided by the belief that “if I can explain to them the real information in a way that they can understand, then they will realize there is nothing to be worried about and therefore not be anxious anymore.”

Such an approach is not only inaccurate, but also invalidating of the anxious individual’s experience. It denies the legitimacy of their reactions (which are accurate based upon the person’s focus on possibilities rather than probabilities), communicates a lack of acceptability of their viewpoint and, most significantly, expresses a lack of empathy for the individual’s struggles and emotional challenges. Notably, these results are often unintended. They are the result of a desire to help without an understanding of the problem. They tend to attempt to fix, based upon their own reality, rather than assist, based upon the anxious individual’s reality.

Providing an individual with support and validating their anxious experience is the foundation upon which assistance can be provided. Asking “what do you need at this time,” or “how can I help you,” or simply letting the person know “I am here with you” go a long way toward provided comfort. When faced with thoughts or feelings of helplessness and impending doom, knowledge that one is not alone has a significant impact. Being there with them, rather than trying to transport them to your own reality, has immeasurable benefit.

How Can I Help?

Take some time to think about the above. Think about whether there is someone in your life who may fall into the anxious category. Reflect upon how you may have approached them in the past and, if relevant, work on shifting your response next time to “How can I help you.”

If you are a person who has struggles with anxiety, think about how others might be helpful to you so that, should they ask you the question above, you can provide them an answer that is truly helpful to you.