Whether you’re giving a big presentation at work or you’re rushing to get to an appointment you’re already late to, we all know what anxiety feels like. Your palms get sweaty, your heart starts racing, and your digestive system goes totally out of whack. For most of us, these stressful moments are few and far between. But for those who have an anxiety disorder, they can expect every day to be filled with excessive worrying and unwanted physical symptoms. Here’s what you should never say to someone with anxiety.
Why anxiety’s a condition you need to start taking seriously
It can be difficult to imagine what having an anxiety disorder feels like if you don’t deal with mental illness. But it’s important to note it’s a serious condition characterized by overwhelming feelings of fear and worry. WebMD reminds us an anxiety disorder typically comes along with the mental strain as well as heart palpitations, sleep problems, tense muscles, and shortness of breath. And there’s not just one cause, either. Environmental stressors, brain changes, and genetics can all have something to do with who develops an anxiety disorder and who doesn’t.
Unsure of how to approach a friend or loved one who has anxiety? We’re here to help. You might be saying a few things you think are helpful, but it could be doing more harm than good. Here’s what you definitely shouldn’t say to someone with this mental illness.
The worst: ‘You need to relax’
If you don’t have anxiety, it’s difficult to understand what it’s like to be bombarded with intrusive and stressful thoughts. Telling your friend or loved one to relax might seem like the best way to calm them down. In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Therapist Jennifer Rollins tells Psychology Today, “Telling someone with an anxiety disorder to ‘calm down,’ is akin to telling someone with allergies to ‘stop sneezing.'”
If they could control their stress with just a few deep breaths and a gentle reminder, then they would have done so already. It’s not a choice, so don’t make it sound like one.
Try this: ‘How can I support you through this time?’
Asking an anxious person how you can help them is a much better (and kinder) approach than ordering them to calm down. This opens up a dialogue between the two of you, where the anxious individual can offer you some insight into what’s actually helpful for them to hear. As Rollins notes, it’s best to ask this question when they’re not in the midst of a panic attack or during severe times of stress. Pick a time when they seem more relaxed so the conversation can be open and honest. Then, you’ll know the best way to help them when they really need it.
Also bad: ‘I know exactly how you feel, I get stressed sometimes too’
Here’s the thing: Even if you have an anxiety disorder yourself, your situation may be totally different from your friend or loved one’s. Everyone’s stress is different, so telling them you know exactly what they’re going through is really just belittling their experience.
We know you mean well — when you say this, it’s an attempt to comfort the anxious person. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work like that. And it’s doubly bad if you follow up this statement with some advice of your own. Jake Freedman, a 26-year-old from London who deals with anxiety, tells The Guardian just how irritating it is to receive advice about his mental condition from people who don’t have one themselves. Freedman says the advice he receives is typically something he’s already tried anyway. Hearing it again just isn’t helpful.
Go for this: ‘I can’t understand what you’re going through, but I’m here to listen’
Your mom was right when she said honesty’s the best policy. Be truthful with those who have anxiety disorders. You don’t know what they’re going through, so the best you can do is listen and make yourself available for talking. That likely doesn’t seem like enough — you might be tempted to comfort the anxious person by telling them everyone experiences stress from time to time. But refrain from doing so. Let them tell you how it is, and do your best to openly listen. You might not understand, and that’s OK. They’ll be happy you’re allowing them a safe space to share their feelings.
Skip saying this, too: ‘What did I do to make you feel this way?’
When someone you love has an anxiety disorder, it can be tempting to wonder what you did to contribute to their mental illness. But you need to refrain from this way of thinking. Asking them this is likely to make them feel guilty, which is the exact opposite of what you want. Keith Humphreys, professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, tells HuffPost you have to remember anxiety disorders typically don’t develop from one person or event (unless you’re referring to PTSD, of course). And trying to control their emotions in any way will leave you and the anxious person more frustrated than ever. “It’s important to not take their anxiety personally,” Humphreys says.
Try this: ‘I’m here for you no matter what’
No matter what the anxious person in your life is going through, it’s always helpful to let them know they don’t have to go through it alone. And it’s important to follow up this statement with action. If your anxious loved one is attending therapy, Alice Boyes, Ph.D., tells Psychology Today you can ask them about what they’re working on to show your support. They may have learned some techniques to help keep their stress at bay, so ask about what’s been working. This may include meditation or behavioral exercises — see if you can join in.
It’s important to consider your own mental health as well. You can’t help someone else if you’re not feeling your best, so check in with yourself. Do you need to take a day just to do what you want to do? Are you feeling like you need alone time? That’s totally fine — and those with anxiety understand, too.