Anxiety is a part of life; feeling anxious before an important presentation or a first date is completely normal. Fear and anxiety exist for a reason – at relatively low levels, anxiety can even help to keep us safe and motivate us to work towards our goals. However, for those living with an anxiety disorder, anxiety can make even simple tasks seem overwhelming and get in the way of living a happy, fulfilling life. Anxiety doesn’t only cause challenges for those who experience it. It can be emotionally exhausting to support someone who is very anxious. As much as you want to help, knowing what to say when they’re suffering can be difficult – especially if you haven’t experienced this level of anxiety yourself. Some comments can end up being more hurtful than helpful, even when said with good intentions. Here are 5 things you should avoid saying to someone with anxiety:
“Just calm down.”
Anxiety isn’t fun or easy. If being able to calm down was simple for everyone, no one would even have an anxiety disorder. This type of comment can even make someone with anxiety feel even worse than they already do; chances are, they’d love to be able to calm down, and the fact that they can’t always control their anxiety despite their best efforts can be incredibly frustrating.
“You’re overthinking it… it’s not that big of a deal!”
From the outside, it’s easy to understand why you might believe people with anxiety are making mountains out of molehills. It’s important to understand that anxiety can convince people that seemingly small or insignificant things are worthy of all their attention and worry. Oftentimes, the person with anxiety already knows that the thing or things they’re worrying about might seem silly to others (especially if they’ve received this type of comment in the past.) That doesn’t make it any easier for them to switch these thoughts off. Instead, it dismisses the very real feelings they’re experiencing.
“It’s all in your head.”
All of our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and even actions originate in our heads. That doesn’t make our experience of our thoughts and emotions any less real or upsetting. Not to mention that anxiety can often come with a host of physical symptoms, for example, an increased heart rate, sweating, or an upset stomach. A comment like this does little to help the person with anxiety – if anything, it suggests that they’re “making it all up,” that their anxiety is just a figment of their imagination rather than a very real mental health concern.
“Worrying will only make things worse!”
In some cases, there is an element of truth to this statement: many of the things that people worry about, whether or not they struggle with anxiety, are things that are out of their control. However, just because something might be true doesn’t mean it’s helpful. If anything, telling them that worrying will only make things worse might lead them to start worrying about how much they’re worrying, making the situation that much more stressful.
“Everything is going to be fine.”
Chances are, most of us have made comments similar to this at some point. Such a comment is almost always said with good intentions, and it does seem like it should be comforting. Unfortunately, since anxiety can do such a great job of convincing us that things won’t ever be okay again, despite how well-intentioned a comment like this may be, it likely won’t provide any real comfort for the person who is struggling. The truth is, we can’t honestly guarantee that everything really will be fine, so it’s best to simply support them in that moment: let them know that even though you feel confident that everything will be fine, that they’re totally allowed to feel the way they’re feeling, and that even if everything isn’t fine in the end, they can work through it and you’ll be by their side through it all.
If you’ve used any of these phrases in a past attempt to be supportive, there’s no need to beat yourself up about it. The truth is, there is no one thing that you can do or say that will make someone’s anxiety disappear. Your best bet is to simply be there for them and ask what kind of support they’d appreciate. Anxiety can be so overwhelming that it can be difficult to identify what kind of support would be helpful, so if they’re unsure, that’s okay too. Keep it simple: ask if they’d like for you to stick around and keep them company, or for you to give them their space. If you’re looking to read more about supporting someone with anxiety, check out our Tips for Supporting Loved Ones with Anxiety and Depression here.