3 Steps to Handling Anxiety in Others


Anxiety is contagious. How you handle it matters.

Anxiety disorders are the #1 most common mental health condition in the US. They affect almost 20% of the population… so if it’s not you, just look around—someone you work with is dealing with this. Probably many someones.

No everyone wears their feelings on their sleeves, but often you can spot signs of anxiousness. And, as you may have experienced, anxiety can be pretty contagious—right up there with covid and cooties and yawning. Not only might your mirror neurons cause you to match any anxious behavior you see, but human beings secrete chemical “alarm signals” when stressed that others unconsciously pick up on. Just like secondhand smoke, you can inhale and feel the effects of secondhand stress. But it’s less smelly, so it’s easier to overlook!

Supporting a friend or coworker with anxiety is a kind and caring way to respond. But it’s also in your best interests. With a thoughtful and proactive approach, you and the rest of your team can limit anxiety’s extent, maintain a positive working environment, and keep moving forward.

To be clear, it is not your job to “fix” anyone. They don’t need to be fixed. We’re talking about normal human feelings and reactions here. It is, however, your job to take care of yourself and, if you’re in a leadership position, your team. Here is one way to do that.

The steps for handling anxiety in others:


1) Provide stability.

Be a safe presence. You may or may not have permission to directly address emotions, but even without words, you can contribute to stability. Nonverbally, this is what a safe, stable presence looks like:

  • A relaxed, yet grounded posture. Sit or stand up straight with your weight evenly distributed over both legs. Release all tension and stiffness.
  • Low, slow breathing. By breathing deeply and slowly, you will stave off secondhand stress. And eventually, your breathing can help the other person calm down, too.
  • A low, monotone voice pattern. A lack of vocal fluctuation is pretty boring. Don’t speak this way if you’re hoping to rouse people to action or provoke an emotional response! It’s great, though, for calming nerves by communicating safety. (And putting babies to sleep… and audiences, for that matter.)

Your reaction to anxiety makes a difference. By not getting anxious yourself, you remind your team member that they can handle what’s going on. If it’s appropriate for you to say, “I know you can handle this,” go for it. But you don’t need to use the words to convey confidence. By staying engaged, yet relaxed, you provide stability.


2) Offer coping mechanisms.

If you’re not in a position to give concrete suggestions, the best way to offer a coping mechanism is through your example: Cope. Stay present and calm. Keep the person company in their distress, while also giving space. Say, “I’m here to help if you need me,” or “How can I help you right now?”

Many specific techniques can help deescalate emotions as well, such as 4-7-8 breathing, visualization, the 5-4-3-2-1 method, muscle tension-relaxation practices, etc. Most of these revolve around getting you out of your head and into your body, here in the present moment. So even if it’s not your place to offer one of these techniques, you may be able to use questions and comments to sensitively redirect attention to what is physical and concrete. Provide a glass of cold water or a pen to write with, adjust the lighting, comment on your surroundings… you get the idea.

There’s a fine line between ignoring a person’s distress and delicately guiding them out of it. If your efforts aren’t appreciated, stop! This is life—the standards are blurry and change constantly, rather like a politician’s. Stay present and be attentive.


3) Gently move forward.

Once feelings have simmered down, refocus. Often, a physical shift helps. Stand up. Sit down. Walk the halls. Location holds memory, so a change in body position or, better yet, a change in setting can help people mentally and emotionally switch gears, too. Leave the anxiety behind—literally.

The key is to be smooth about it. Gently, comfortably, without arousing more anxiety, turn your attention to something else. If you can physically turn your body to do that, great! If not, a shift in posture will often do the trick.


Anxiety is a part of life, but it doesn’t have to take over. In fact, since stress and anxiousness can be contagious, be sure to protect yourself with strong boundaries:

  • Relational boundaries: While you can support, you can’t change or “fix” anyone. It is neither actyour right nor your responsibility to do so. You take care of you.
  • Temporal boundaries: Set limits on the amount of time you dedicate to other people’s anxiety. Dedicating all your energy to someone else doesn’t benefit either of you.
  • Emotional boundaries: Empathize, but don’t internalize. Feel with others, but not for them. Don’t make other people’s problems your own.


You don’t need to feel helpless in the face of anxiety. Regardless of how big or small an anxious reaction is, with these steps you can help others (and yourself!) regain balance, quiet your brain, and move forward.


Change your communication, change your life.

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