Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Response Options to an
 Overly-Anxious or Fearful Person

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Expert's Council

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/fearful.htm

Updated 01-23-2015

      Clicking underlined links here will open a new window. Other links will open  an informational popup, so please turn off your browser's popup blocker or allow popups from this nonprofit Web site. If your playback device doesn't support Javascript, the popups may not display. Follow underlined links after finishing this article to avoid getting lost.

      This is one of a series of brief articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behavior. An effective response occurs when you get your primary needs met well enough, and both people feel respected enough.

      This brief YouTube video provides perspective on what you'll read here:

      This article (a) offers brief perspective on "anxiety," and (b) effective responses to an over-anxious person. The article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 and 2

  • how to give effective feedback to someone

  • overviews of effective assertion and empathic listening skills.

  • this perspective on excessive fear


      Try defining anxiety out loud. Then explain the difference between anxiety and fear. Would you say that worry is different than anxiety or apprehension? All these normal emotions fall on a spectrum of terror to serenity. They each describes a reaction to possible or certain pain, injury, or death.  

      Timidity is a symptom of personal self-doubt (low self-confidence). Ambivalence suggests a mix of confidence and self-doubt. Fear blooms when you imagine or perceive major discomfort or pain that you may not be able to prevent or control. Fear can be amplified by not knowing what may happen, how, or when. "Fear of the unknown" can raise the heart-rate of the toughest person. 

       Besides their words, how do you judge when someone feels "significantly" anxious or fearful? Their facial expression? Eye movement? Voice dynamics? Body posture? Timidity? Indecision? Nervousness? Stuttering? All of these? How do you display anxiety with friends and strangers?

      How do you usually feel with a notably anxious adult or child? Uncomfortable? Sympathetic? Detached? Concerned? How does their anxiety affect your behavior? Do you feel responsible for making them feel better? That may be a way to reduce your discomfort if you doubt the other person's ability to manage their worry or fear.

      When you feel unsure, anxious or worried, what do you need from other people? Reassurance? Listening and empathy? Suggestions or direction? Information? Explanations? Confrontation? Physical comforting? Prayers? Solitude? Companionship? Respect? Optimism? Attentiveness? Sympathy? Something else? Do your needs depend on the situation? Do you assume other people need what you need?

      Have you ever been told...

"Oh don't worry, It'll be alright."

"You're upset over nothing!"

"Keep a stiff upper lip!"

"It's no big deal!"

Hey - look at the bright side!"

"Don't be such a worrywart!"

"Put on a happy face!"

"Just get over it!"

"C'mon - lighten up!"

"It could be worse!"

      These are well-intentioned but disrespectful discounts. They imply "You shouldn't feel what you're feeling." Do you ever use these to make yourself feel better around an anxious person?

      Another common response that can feel disrespectful is "I know just how you feel!" That is rarely true, because we're unique people with unique backgrounds and perceptions. A better option is to use respectful attentiveness and empathic listening.

      Option: look at an excessively or chronically fearful person with compassion. A scared or pessimistic subself has disabled their true Self, and they are (a) unaware of that, and (b) how to free it and regain appropriate self-confidence and courage.

      People with vague personal boundaries can become over-empathic to another person's fear - i.e. they can feel anxious with the other person. This is specially likely if they don't trust the other person to manage their fear well enough. If you sacrifice your needs "too much" to protect an anxious partner, you risk enabling their fear, and discounting yourself. "Too much" depends on the person, your relationship, and the situation.

      Stay aware that a valuable way to respond is to help the person master their own doubt and fear - which can mean "the best way to help is by not helping." Recall the ancient proverb "It is better to teach a starving person how to fish than to give them a fish."

       A challenge here is to keep your Self in charge, respect your partner's feelings, and not try to rescue him/her, dictate what s/he feels (or should feel), or persuade him/her to discount their emotions. With this in mind, how can you respond effectively to a significantly-fearful person?

Response Options

      Appropriate responses depend on a mix of factors...

  • the degree of anxiety (low to high),

  • the cause (local or ongoing),

  • how stable and grounded the person is,

  • what resources they have,

  • the urgency of the situation, and...

  • your relationship and role - i.e. mate, relative, parent, child, friend, co-worker or classmate, acquaintance, or stranger.

Most of us haven't learned to consciously assess these factors. We react instinctively in important situations, which may cause ineffective or even harmful responses. Options:

  • Mentally review these basic options until they become habitual;

  • If circumstances allow, pause and reflect on...

    • what do I feel around this person now? Your emotions point to current needs;.

    • what do I need now? Are my needs as important a the other person's new? Caution - if your answer is "I'm not sure," or "No," be alert for a well-meaning false self controlling you.

    • what does this person need now - in general, and from me?

    • what am I responsible for in this situation? Who determines that - me, the other person, someone else, or "society"?

    • is this an emergency or crisis?  If so, who is in what specific danger?

  • Depending on your assessment, choose among options like these:

To validate the person's feelings

"(Name), you look (or sound) anxious now."

To learn and/or clarify 

"I wonder if something is worrying you. Can you say what you're feeling?"

"Is there something you'd like to talk about now?"

"Is there anything I can do to help you feel better?" Be careful not to assume responsibility for the person's feelings!

"Can you name what you're anxious about / scared of?" Sometimes identifying specific fears can make them seem more manageable.

"What's the worst that might happen, in this case?" Sometimes identifying the worst allows brainstorming what to do about it. That often reduces anxiety.

"How have you handled situations like this in the past?"

"(Name), is your true Self guiding you through this?" If not, empowering the Self can often reveal a way to manage the current anxiety well. The anxiety is secondary to freeing the Self to lead. 

If the person denies feeling anxious or scared, s/he may send a double message implying at least two subselves are in control  - e.g., a Scared Child, Catastrophizer, or Worrier and a Magician) who don't feel safe to disclose. You aren't responsible for this, and you can't "fix it." Try something like this:

"(Name), I'm confused. Your body and voice imply that you're worried about something, yet your words say "No, I'm OK."  Then be quiet, and observe with an open mind.

To Reassure the Other Person

      There are many verbal and nonverbal options here. The best ones avoid claiming something that the person doesn't believe, like "It'll be all right, you'll see!", or "Trust me - that (fearful thing) will never happen !" Tho well-meant, assurances like these aren't helpful unless you have special knowledge that the other person doesn't have.

      Consider appropriate touching, hugging, or holding, and/or more factual reassurances like...

"(Name), you're not alone. We'll (all) go through this together."

"Please let go of feeling guilty about asking for help. You're not imposing on me (if true). If I'm not able to listen or be with you, I'll tell you honestly. Do you trust me on this?" Caution - be clear on your responsibility here, and avoid enabling.

"Who (else) do you have to talk to about this?"

"Who else knows about your situation?"

"Would you like me to pray with you?"

  • If your partner remains anxious despite your responses, use these wise guidelines, and let go of needing to do more. Can you think of child or adult you'd like to try this response strategy with?


      This is one of a series of brief articles suggesting effective ways to respond to common annoying social behaviors. This article offers (a) perspective on the spectrum between anxiety and terror, (b) what causes anxiety, (c) unhelpful responses, and (d) ways to respond effectively to an overly-anxious or fearful person. The ways are based on...

  • keeping your true Self in charge,

  • maintaining a mutual-respect attitude,

  • clarity on your feelings, needs, and mutual rights; and...

  • fluency in the relationship skills of awareness, assertion, and empathic listening.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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