As a person with anxiety, I know that it’s not always easy to know how to communicate with me. Nothing seems to bring me comfort when I’m having an anxiety attack. But some comments — as well-intentioned as they may be — can actually be detrimental when it comes to me successfully getting past the overwhelming levels of anxiety I’m feeling. And based on what mental health professionals and people with anxiety have written over the years, my experience is not a unique one — there are definitely certain things you should avoid saying to someone with anxiety.
While many people mean well when they are trying to help a loved one through an anxiety attack, the words that come to mind first are unfortunately not always the appropriate ones to say. And sometimes, in your pursuit to have your friend or family member relax, you might understandably get frustrated. So this list provides some explanations on why what you’re saying to people with anxiety doesn’t always work.
In my other career as a massage therapist, I have learned that telling a client to “relax” is a surefire way to get them to become even tenser. Well, that same rule can be applied to trying to help someone with anxiety. As Ari Eastman wrote for Thought Catalog, “When you tell someone to relax, you aren’t being helpful. You’re just robbing them of validity. You’re telling them, ‘This thing you have isn’t real. Just stop it.’ You’re denying their experience, their struggle.”
Just like “relax,” same goes for “calm down.” Although it’s similar to telling someone to relax since both invalidate the person’s emotions, this one — for me — is more upsetting and has a tendency to set me off. As therapist Jennifer Rollin wrote for Psychology Today, “Telling someone with an anxiety disorder to ‘calm down,’ is akin to telling someone with allergies to ‘stop sneezing.’ Mental illnesses are not a choice. No one would choose to feel paralyzing levels of anxiety, and if the person was able to control their anxiety, they would.”
3“It’s all in your head.”
As Tess Koman wrote for Cosmopolitan, anxiety is in a person’s head, but that doesn’t make it any more controllable and saying such can just make the person with anxiety become more self-conscious.
4“Everything is going to be fine.”
Although “everything will be okay” and its variations seem like a safe thing to say, some people really don’t like to hear that when they are going through a tough time — and that pertains to anxiety attacks or other difficult moments. “Unfortunately, telling someone [who is dealing with anxiety] that ‘everything is going to be alright’ won’t do much, because nobody is going to believe it,” clinical psychologist Scott Bea told Huffington Post. “Reassurance sometimes can be a bad method. It makes them feel better for 20 seconds and then doubt can creep in again.”
5“Things could be worse.”
Yes, things could absolutely be worse. But that’s not helpful when someone is having an anxiety attack, as Violet Fenn wrote for Metro. This could actually make someone feel guilty for his or her feelings of anxiety, which might only make him or her spiral even more.
6“You don’t have to come.”
If you are hosting an event and are worried about how your friend or family member with anxiety will deal, you might think it would be good to give them an out so that he or she doesn’t think they are required to come. “But this only confirms that the person isn’t able to get through it and perpetuates her anxiety,” clinical psychologist Janine Domingues told Real Simple. “It makes the person feel sad and guilty for burdening another person.” Domingues says it’s better to continue to invite your friend with anxiety to events — even if he or she says no most of the time.
7“Be more positive.”
While you might think this sounds hopeful and optimistic, it can be borderline insulting as Kat Smith for The Mighty wrote since it sounds judgmental. “The nature of their illness means they cannot think in the logical and positive way you may be able to,” Smith wrote. “The kindest thing you can do for them is to just listen.”
8“You’ll overcome it.”
This is another comment that sounds encouraging, but being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder is not something that the person should feel like he or she needs to continuously fight. As another writer for The Mighty, Meredith Arthur, wrote, “There is no path ‘out of’ anxiety. If you have an anxiety disorder, then anxiety will likely be some part of your entire life. Does this mean you can’t be happy? No. You can find many ways to feel safe and comfortable with who you are, anxiety and all.”
9“It’s not that big of a deal.”
What your friend may be having an anxiety attack over might not be a big deal to you — but that’s not really the point and it shows a lack of empathy. As Bea told the Huffington Post in the previously referenced article, “You have to enter the person’s belief system … For [someone with anxiety], everything is big stuff.” So it’s best to not minimize his or her feelings by saying it’s not a big deal.
10“There’s nothing to be upset about.”
A common theme of this list is dismissing what a person with anxiety is feeling. As Tara Dixon for Heal Your Life Counseling wrote, comments like these can make people “feel helpless to their anxiety.” She continued, “Your loved one understands that this doesn’t make sense. Giving advice or questioning their reality will surely push them away. Instead, let them know they are loved and that you are there.”
11Any advice in general, sometimes.
The Guardian asked real people who experience anxiety to explain how it feels and what people can do to help. One respondent, Jake Freedman, made the point that Dixon made above that sometimes it’s best just not to give any advice. “Giving someone who experiences anxiety advice is often irritating, as the chances are they have tried most things that have been suggested to them,” he said. “The best thing someone can say is that they are sorry I am experiencing anxiety and that I am free to talk about it if I want to.”
Once you know what not to say, the next step is figuring out what does help. Sarah Fader for Psychology Today covered how listening and just being there can be more comforting than anything else. Because while anything you’re trying to do to help is appreciated, sometimes a person with anxiety needs silent support and a loving presence more than anything else.