9 Things Not to Say to Someone With Anxiety
- How to Provide Effective Anxiety SupportNearly 1 out of 5 Americans has an anxiety disorder, so there’s a good chance you know someone with anxiety. There’s an equally good chance you want to support your friend, loved one or colleague—and have said or done things they’ve perceived as less than helpful. Be prepared for coping with anxiety in a relationship, including a colleague with anxiety at work, and how to offer help in case of an anxiety attack (panic attack). Here are a few things not to say to someone with anxiety—and what TO say instead.
- 1. “Calm down.”Telling someone to “calm down” has never, ever made it happen. Those words are not magic and definitely not helpful. If the person experiencing anxiety had the ability to calm down in that moment, they’d absolutely do it. To someone with anxiety, this all-too-common phrase is patronizing and annoying. What to do instead: Model calm. Talk gently. Slow your breathing to dispel your own rising anxiety. Try saying something like, “I’m here for you,” “I’m here to listen,” or “I’ll stay with you.”
- 2. “It’s not a big deal.”Most people with anxiety know that some of their thoughts are irrational and out of proportion to the situation at hand, at least in their quiet, non-anxious moments. But when anxiety rears its head, it is huge. It is a big deal because it’s all-consuming. Telling someone in the middle of an anxiety (or panic) attack that whatever they’re worrying about is “not a big deal” minimizes their very real distress. Validating their feelings is a better response. Try something like, “I can see you’re really worried.”
- 3. “Why are you so anxious?”Talk about an impossible question to answer! Sure, some people may occasionally be able to identify the source of their distress in a particular moment, but oftentimes, anxiety and panic attacks strike for no apparent reason. Also not helpful: Attempting to explain to someone why you think they have anxiety and what they should do about it. As one person with anxiety said, “In situations of severe anxiety or a panic attack, I don’t need that—I want someone to listen and be there. They don’t have to do or say anything.”
- 4. “I know how you feel.”Unless you also have an anxiety disorder, you have no idea what it feels like to be crippled with anxiety; the butterflies and nerves you experience before a test or important work presentation are not the same. Sharing your experiences with anxiety with a friend in the midst of a panic attack is not helpful. One individual said, “Please don’t create a competition by telling me how your anxiety, or circumstance that caused your anxiety, is so much worse than mine. That doesn’t help.” Instead, say something like, “I’m always here for you.”
- 5. “Stop worrying.”A close cousin of “calm down,” “stop worrying” is a completely unhelpful response. More than anything, the person with anxiety wants to stop worrying. But in the moment, worry is not exactly a conscious choice or under voluntary control. Instead, you can help the individual slow down and challenge their anxious thoughts. If a coworker is anxious about a big presentation and convinced she’ll fail, you can say, “It’s totally normal to feel stressed. But I know you’ve prepared and have given great presentations in the past.”
- 6. “Just breathe.”Breathing exercises can alleviate anxiety, but they work best when first suggested or practiced during moments of calm. Someone who is already breathing more quickly or shallowly than usual may have a very difficult time shifting their breathing pattern while their mind is spinning. Instead of saying, “just breathe,” model deep breathing. Slow your own breath and breathe in deeply and slowly through the nose and out through gently pursed lips. Note: If the person with anxiety routinely uses breathing exercises to control their anxiety, reminding them to “breathe” may be helpful.
- 7. “Have you tried [fill in the blank]?”CBD and essential oils are not a cure for anxiety. Neither is a paleo or gluten-free or vegetarian diet. Exercise, meditation and yoga help some people manage their anxiety, but they’re definitely not a cure-all. Remember: Anxiety is a very individual experience. What helps one person may not help another. Instead of making suggestions, try asking the person with anxiety, “What can I do to help you?” Most people who live with anxiety already know what works and what doesn’t work for them. During moments of calm (and if you are close with the person), you can ask about techniques they’ve tried or what works best for them.
- 8. “It’s all in your head.”On some level, people who have anxiety disorders know the worry is ‘all in their head.’ But that doesn’t make their anxiety or fears any less real. Uttering this phrase dismisses their very real concerns and the impact anxiety is having on their lives. Instead, try helping individuals with anxiety connect with the physical world around them. Offer to walk with them. Help them find a quiet place. Turn on some music, if they’re open to it.
- 9. “Get over it.”People don’t choose to have anxiety. It’s a health condition, just like diabetes, asthma, or high blood pressure. Telling someone to “get over it” is insensitive at best; at worst, it signals an unwillingness to help the individual deal with a chronic condition and the concern at hand. It’s much more helpful to show your support, even if you don’t truly understand the condition or what it feels like. Try saying something like, “This is tough, but we’ll get through it together.” Back that statement up with action: Stay with them as needed. Help them find treatment, if appropriate. Celebrate successes.
9 Things Not to Say to Someone With Anxiety | Anxiety Support