How to talk about anxiety with your family, friends and colleagues

Health Agenda
Mental Health

How to talk about anxiety with your family, friends and colleagues

Published February 2023 | 5 min read
Expert contributors Dr Marny Lishman, health and community psychologist; Dr Jodie Lowinger, founder of The Anxiety Clinic; Jeremy Cowden, psychologist, PSYCH2U
Words by Bonnie Bayley

Talking about your anxiety to other people can be a scary prospect – but it doesn’t need to be. Here’s how to raise the topic to make sure you get the support you deserve.

All of us feel worried or overwhelmed from time to time, but for the one in four Aussies who will experience an anxiety disorder at some stage in their life, anxiety is more than just an occasional flare-up of nerves.

“When you have an anxiety condition, it’s quite life-halting,” says health and community psychologist Dr Marny Lishman. “It will stop you from doing the things you’d like to be doing and put you in a space of distress that you actually can’t shift.”

There are many types of anxiety, from generalised anxiety disorder (where someone feels anxious or worried most of the time), to panic disorder (associated with recurrent panic attacks), social phobia, specific phobias, and conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder.

Because it’s so personal, talking about your anxiety to other people can feel like the last thing you’d want to do. But opening up to others – be it your partner, family, friends or colleagues – can help them better understand you.

“Unless someone lets us into their world, all we see is behaviour, and that’s when people are more likely to make a quick judgement about you,” says Dr Lishman.

Reaching out to others means you’ll be more likely to get the support you need. Here are some ways you can start the conversation.

Scenario #1: You’ve been experiencing anxiety symptoms alone, but you’re not really coping and you book an appointment with your GP to get help.

How to raise the topic: “Knowing that it’s not weak to feel, it’s human to feel, and that you are worth seeking help is an important starting point,” says clinical psychologist Dr Jodie Lowinger, author and founder of The Anxiety Clinic. “Be true and transparent to what you’re experiencing and how it’s impacting your life, because a GP will respond to the information they have available.”

Try saying this: ”I’ve been noticing I haven’t been sleeping well, my heart's racing and I can’t shake these thoughts. Is there some help I can get for this?”

“Tell them your symptoms just like you would for a physical health condition,” says Dr Lishman, adding that it can be handy to take in a list of what’s been going on in your body and mind.

Psychologist from PSYCH2U, Jeremy Cowden, agrees. “It can be hard for someone with anxiety to clarify and express what’s going on for them, so breaking it down into different areas can help,” he says. He suggests taking note of:

  • Functional issues: what is harder to do than usual (sleep, wake up, concentrate, remember things, make decisions)?
  • Physical symptoms: are there any aches, pains, areas of tension, nausea, shakes, hot/cold sensations, tiredness, restlessness?
  • Preoccupation: are there things you can't stop thinking about or doing that you wish you could?

“After thinking about these things and noting them down, our feelings can be a little easier to explain. All of this will help your doctor to help you,” says Jeremy.

If you’re anxious about seeing a GP in person, a telehealth consult can be a good option.

Our partnership with GP2U, an online video GP service, makes it easier for you to access telehealth services. Through our partnership with GP2U, all HCF members with health cover can access a standard online video GP consultation (up to 10 minutes) for a fee of $50.

Scenario #2: You’re in a high-pressure job and anxiety is making it hard for you to do aspects of your role, but you’re scared to tell your boss.

How to raise the topic: Organise a one-on-one meeting with your line manager in a private environment, where you fill them in on how you’ve been feeling, your symptoms and what you need to truly flourish in your role.

Try saying this: “I’ve been feeling x, and I’d be very grateful if you would consider y”, or “It would be very helpful in the context that I’m working in if we could work together towards z.”

If you’re worried about being vulnerable, it’s okay to be short and to the point about your symptoms, or even take a trusted colleague to your meeting for support. Prepare several specific suggestions of what might help you, like a deadline extension or working from home more often.

Scenario #3: You want to reach out to friends about your struggles with social anxiety, but you’re worried they might view you differently or pull away.

How to raise the topic: Social anxiety (also known as social phobia) involves a fear of being judged, criticised or humiliated in front of others and may prompt someone to avoid or limit social situations. You don’t necessarily have to label yourself with anxiety; instead, whenever you spend time with friends, aim to be a little more vulnerable and real than you were before.

Try saying this: “Whenever I go to a friend’s house when there are people I don’t know, I get really anxious” or “I got no sleep last night, I’ve been feeling knots in my tummy and I don’t know why.”

“Your friend might step into that, ask questions, offer some suggestions or tell you about their experience and what helped them,” says Dr Lishman.

If you get a response that isn’t sympathetic or your concerns are brushed aside, it could be that your friend doesn’t know how to respond or doesn’t know much about anxiety. Try coming back to the conversation again another time and if you’re still not feeling supported by their response, choose another trusted friend to open up to instead.

Scenario #4: You’ve been experiencing panic attacks, particularly in crowded places, but your family has booked an outing at a busy place.

How to raise the topic: Sometimes, those who know us best can be more inclined to challenge us if we act ‘out of character’, or don’t fall in with their desired plans.

“Assertiveness is your right as a human being, but sometimes if we experience anxiety we can tip towards people-pleasing and neglecting our own needs,” says Dr Lowinger. Start by describing how you’re feeling and why, state your boundaries and what support you need.

Try saying this: “I’ve been getting heart palpitations and sweating in crowded spaces, so I’ve decided to skip the concert, and it would be helpful if we could have our next family gathering somewhere quiet.”

If you’re dismissed, calmly try again. “Say, ‘This is really important, I need you to listen to me right now, I’m letting you know that I’m feeling x’, then reiterate it,” suggests Dr Lishman.

Scenario #5: You want to tell your partner how you’re feeling, get them on board with helping you manage your anxiety symptoms and work out the best treatment plan.

How to raise the topic: Often we assume our partner knows what we’re thinking or feeling about something and vice versa, says Jeremy. “Particularly, if we aren't at our best, we can get this wrong, so check with your partner how aware they are of what's going on for you.”

Try saying this: “You might have noticed I've been a bit off lately.”

Explain what you’ve noticed, and then ask what they’ve noticed.

“People often feel it's their fault if their partners are struggling, so some reassurance on this can help, if appropriate. Tell them what helps and what doesn't,” says Jeremy.

If you feel it would help to include your partner in an appointment with your GP to discuss treatment, let them know. If you think it wouldn’t be a good idea – sometimes it's difficult to talk about some things around people close to you – let them know that too, says Jeremy.

“Remember, in most cases your partner cares about your wellbeing and wants to do what they can to help. If not, that’s another thing to explore,” adds Jeremy.

Scenario #6: You have kids and want them to understand why there are times when you may not be your ‘normal’ self, without them taking on your worries or feeling like it’s their fault.

How to raise the topic: Parents are increasingly aware that communicating openly and respectfully with their kids can set them up for a healthy emotional life as adults. “It’s actually a really powerful informal way of teaching our kids about their emotions,” explains Dr Lishman.

Try saying this: “Mummy’s been feeling really nervous lately because I’ve got a lot going on at work, but what I’m going to do is start talking to people about it.”

Explaining how you’re feeling, and why, will let kids know it’s not because of them. It can also be an opportunity to model self-care, like deep breathing or going for a walk outdoors.

Where to find more help for anxiety support and information

Need to speak with someone?

To support members with faster, easier access to qualified mental health professionals, we’re offering a free telehealth HealthyMinds Check-in with a PSYCH2U psychologist for eligible members^.

If you're struggling with depression or anxiety, and need to speak to someone now, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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^ 1 HealthyMinds Check-in available per member per calendar year. Service is available free to all members with hospital cover. Excludes extras only cover, Ambulance Only, Accident Only Basic and Overseas Visitors Health Cover.

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