A little bit of anxiety here and there is a fairly common and normal emotion. First day on the job… going on a blind date… the night before your wedding. These are all things that may cause a little bit of anxiety. After all, it is your body’s natural response to stress. But when anxiety begins to become prolonged, extreme or severe, it can be very challenging and at times even debilitating.
Most of us know someone who struggles with anxiety. But most of us don’t always know what to say or do when they are feeling anxious, particularly if they are having a panic attack. There are certain things we can say that can make them feel better. For example, when someone suffering from anxiety feels heard, loved and understood, it helps them to deal with the anxiety and its symptoms. On the flip side, when someone feels judged, belittled or excluded, it makes the anxiety far worse – sometimes even paralyzing. So what should you avoid saying to someone with anxiety so that you don’t make it harder for them than it already is?
Here are 11 things NOT to say to someone with anxiety:
- Don’t say “Just get over it.” This is one of the most common, insensitive and ineffective things to say to someone with anxiety. If they could simply “just get over it” then of course they would. Alas, it is not so simple. You would never say to someone with a broken leg, “Whatever, just walk on it.” Yet because we cannot “see” anxiety, it is hard for people that have never experienced it to understand it. A person experiencing anxiety has perceptions and thought patterns which are broken and distorted. Just like it is difficult and damaging to try and walk normally when you have a broke leg, it is equally difficult and damaging to just try and think normally when you are suffering from anxiety. Instead of saying “just get over it,” a better thing to say is, “Is there anything I can do?” or “Know that I am here for you.” This helps the other person to feel heard, valued and supported.
- Don’t say “It’s all in your head.” Even though the thoughts that create anxiety definitely start in one’s mind, the implications of anxiety are very real – both physically and emotionally. Telling someone with anxiety that it is all in their head can in fact exasperate their feelings of anxiety and make matters far worse. Even though their thinking patterns may be distorted, in that very moment, it is extremely difficult for someone who has anxiety to see that. A much better thing to do is to help them calm down by finding someplace quiet and supporting them to take deep breaths.
- Don’t say “Weirdo” or any other name (even if seemingly in jest). When someone is suffering anxiety, they may look like they are getting worked up about something relative small or seemingly insignificant. What’s important to remember is that in that very moment, it is not small or insignificant to that person. Anxiety feels large, dark and overwhelming. Even if their behaviors may be seem strange to you, it is important not to make them feel that they are weird or crazy. This will also exacerbate the anxiety. Instead, help them feel supported and less alone by asking them how you can help or just letting them know that you are there for them.
- Don’t say “Calm down.” Never in the history of calming down has anyone ever calmed down by being told to calm down. Whether you’ve experienced anxiety or not, at some point in your life, chances are you’ve experienced anger or frustration, and someone has told you to calm down. How did it make you feel? Likely not calmer. In fact, it likely made you feel ever more angry or frustrated. The same is true for anxiety. Telling someone who is experiencing anxiety to calm down will just make them feel more anxious. Instead, try giving them simple, specific and practical tips such as taking a deep breath, counting to 10 or listening to some music.
- Don’t say “At least you…” Sometimes people, with the best intentions, try to make someone else feel better by comparing their situations to others who might be worse off or by highlighting something good in the hope of helping them see less need to be anxious. For example, if someone is feeling anxiety about an upcoming social event, you might want to say something like, “Well at least you are invited to these types of things” or “At least you don’t have to be the one hosting.” While these comments may be well-meaning, the use of “at least” can diminish what someone is feeling by making it seem comparatively a lesser deal. Instead, validate their fear and emotion and once again, simply ask if there is anything you can do to help.
- Don’t say Nothing. When you’re with someone who has serious anxiety or is suffering a panic attack, it’s hard to know exactly what to do or say. Because of this, sometimes people just do nothing. Or worse still, walk away. This signals to the person with anxiety that you don’t really care (even though you do!). You don’t need to do or say anything grand, but a few words or a small gesture to let them know you care can go a long way. Even just putting your arm around them or giving them a hug show that you are there for them and that you truly care.
- Don’t say “Just…” Just breathe. Just go for a walk. Just calm down. Just call your mom. Telling someone with anxiety to “just” do something, suggests there is an easy solution and diminishes the seriousness of what they’re feeling and going through. If it were that easy, trust me, they would have done it! It also communicates to them that you think you know the answer, which if you’ve never had anxiety, can feel frustrating and alienating to someone who deals with it frequently. It will likely make them feel alone and misunderstood. Instead, if you have an idea of something that might help, pose it as a question to them. For example, “Do you think it would help if we took a little walk?” Let them decide whether or not it might help.
- Don’t say “I get it” if you don’t. The term anxiety gets thrown around a lot. People use it frivolously and often jokingly. For example:, “I have anxiety about who the bachelor is going to choose in the final rose ceremony.” Of course, real anxiety is a lot deeper and more complicated than this type of anxiety, and if you don’t have it or understand it, be grateful for that and don’t try to pretend you do. It won’t help if you actually can’t relate, and it will come across as inauthentic which does little to contribute to a safe space. Instead, be real. You can say something like, “I’m so sorry about what you’re feeling right now. I’ve never personally had a panic attack, but I want you to know that I am here for you and will do anything I can to help.”
- Don’t say “have you tried?” Yes. they’ve probably tried IT ALL. People with anxiety struggle constantly and more often than not, have done everything possible to try and deal with it. For some people with anxiety, it can be frustrating to hear another “have you tried.” Instead, ask them if they’d like you to do some research or suggest a few things for you to try. If they really would like suggestions, it gives them the opportunity to invite them. If they really wouldn’t, it gives them the opportunity to politely decline.
- Don’t continuously keep asking “Are you OK?” When you start to see signs of anxiety in someone, avoid continuously asking, “Are you OK?” We all know that when we’re not feeling great, emotionally or physically, getting asked constantly if we are ok is frustrating and not constructive. Also, often people will say “yes” or “I’m fine” and then you may inadvertently ignore or dismiss something more serious. Instead, ask them if they want to go somewhere quieter or for a walk. Give them the time and space they need and allow them to open up if and when they feel ready.
- Don’t say “are you seeing a therapist?” or “are you on medication?” These are two very personal questions that can not only compromise someone’s privacy, but can also be perceived as an insult if said the wrong way. Yes, therapy and medication can absolutely help people with anxiety. However, individuals need to be ready and open to trying them and need to take ownership over the decision. Forced therapy will not work. Instead, try saying something like, “I’ve noticed you’ve been dealing with a lot of anxiety lately and I’m concerned.” Find the right time and space to open up a serious conversation with a friend or loved one about it and work together to discuss different options.
The most important thing to remember is that when someone is dealing with anxiety, you want them to feel heard and supported and not shamed or judged. Our words can go a long way, so we need to choose them wisely!