Asking for Help When Anxious: What Help Do You Really Need?

November 29, 2020 George Abitante

I noticed while trying to think of a topic for this week's article that I often write about anxiety in terms of the individual experiencing it, but up until now, that has not included asking for help when you're anxious. I'll sometimes bring up things like helping someone else with anxiety, but I rarely discuss how to ask for help when you feel anxious yourself.

I may have avoided this topic in part because I believe there is a fine line between asking for help and using others as a way to reduce anxiety. I think a lot of what makes our anxiety coping skills and tools useful for anxiety is the manner in which they're applied, and this holds true for how we ask others for help as well.

There are times when asking for support from a close friend or family member can be a fantastic means of coping with anxiety, and I believe it's important to use our social supports in those cases. But there are also ways we can ask for help that perpetuates anxiety instead of helping us cope with it. Today I wanted to talk through my thoughts on how we can ask for help when anxious in a healthy, productive way that does not exacerbate anxiety in the long term. 

Asking for (Healthy) Help When Anxious

You might be asking yourself what is so bad about asking for help when anxious, and I would say, on the whole, there's nothing wrong with it at all. However, the intent behind the way we ask others for help can have a significant impact on whether that support actually helps. For instance, during exposure therapy, therapists often assist individuals in situations that are anxiety-provoking, and over time, the individual is able to engage with that situation without additional help. In that case, the intent is to work together to engage with the anxiety over time without needing that extra help. This process tends to work quite well, helping individuals cope with anxiety-provoking situations with less distress.

When we ask family or friends for help, it can serve a similar role when the request for help is meant to improve engagement with anxiety over time. Asking someone close to help you with an anxiety-inducing task you haven't done yourself before can be a great way to make that situation less distressing and help you handle it on your own in the future. 

Conversely, asking for help when you're anxious as a way of avoiding anxiety completely can be counterproductive. For example, asking friends to change plans from going to a theme park because of anxiety about rollercoasters will likely reinforce your anxiety about rollercoasters. This kind of avoidance-enabling can make anxiety harder to deal with instead of better.

But there are less clearly-avoidant ways of asking for help that still perpetuate anxiety. If you're asking for someone to go on the train with you because you're worried about getting stuck, for instance, you might feel dependent on that person to ride the train. Rather than helping you engage with a feared situation so you can do it yourself, asking for someone to go with the belief that the person's presence allows you to avoid the anxious situation may actually make your fear worse when you do need to take the train alone.

It's a subtle difference, but I think the underlying intent is the key distinction -- asking for help to engage with anxious situations can be beneficial, but asking for help to avoid anxious situations (in whatever form that avoidance may take) can exacerbate anxiety. 

The Takeaway

I've brought up a lot of different ideas and examples, but I hope the takeaway is that asking for help when you're anxious from others can be a great way to cope with and recover from anxiety when done correctly.

The intent you hold when asking for help makes a big difference, so I encourage you to notice how you already ask others for help and what kind of intention you have when you do. If you notice it's primarily helping you avoid your anxiety, then you might consider trying to find a middle ground that helps you feel less anxious while also addressing the situation that makes you anxious. 

Thanks so much for reading; please share your comments or experiences about how you ask for help when you're anxious below. 

APA Reference
Abitante, G. (2020, November 29). Asking for Help When Anxious: What Help Do You Really Need?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, May 19 from

Author: George Abitante

George received his Master's degree in Clinical Psychology from Northwestern University and is pursuing his PhD in Clinical Psychology at Vanderbilt University. Find him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @AbitanteGeorge.

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