You mean well, and that’s obvious. “Often for friends and loved ones, it can be really difficult to figure out what to say to someone who is anxious,” says Sanam Hafeez, a neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University in New York City. “The natural instinct is to assure them that everything is fine and to minimize the problem in order to minimize the anxiety, but it just does not work,” she adds. In your effort to provide reassurance and address their angst, it’s useful to know what not to say to someone with anxiety, lest you make things worse. More importantly, you’ll want to know what to say to someone with anxiety instead.
Trying to comfort someone with “don’t worry” or “this is nothing,” is invalidating, says Hafeez. “Anxiety has a wide range, from mild to severe, and the variables that affect a person are numerous. Depending on a situation, the person’s history with anxiety, the circumstances, and repercussions of a problem, anxiety can become overwhelming,” she adds. Remember that they can’t just choose worry or not, so this sentiment is impossible, too. Better language includes simply telling them that you are here for them without trying to offer up solutions or expect them to bounce back quickly. Also let them know if they don’t feel like talking about it, that’s okay, too.
“Get over it”
If it were only that simple. At the top of things that people living with anxiety would like you to know, there’s the fact that it’s impossible to just get over it. “Anxiety, like all mental health states, is personal and subjective,” says Amy Axtell, MA, a licensed psychotherapist in Tucson, Arizona. That reaction should never be dismissive. “Not only does saying get over it dismiss the sufferer’s experience, but it also ignores what may be the actual degree of severity,” says Axtell.
Instead, Axtell suggests leading with a sense of sincere interest. “Ask your friend or family member what they’re feeling. What’s triggering them? What do they normally do to find comfort?”
“You’re going to make yourself sick”
First, it really is possible to “worry yourself sick,” says Hafeez: “Our brain is connected to our entire body. Stress can trigger anxiety and cause the circulation of hormones that could affect your gut or your blood pressure, for example.” The issue here lies in the motive behind your statement, as it serves to try to get them to stop their anxious thoughts (and out of fear, too). That’s not going to work, and may increase a sense of overwhelm, she says. Always lead with empathy. “Watch your tone and watch your language as you speak. It’s okay to voice your concern that stress can make them feel sick, but don’t use that as a tactic to nudge them into feeling less anxious,” says Hafeez.
From the outside, the solutions can seem simple—and there are so many easy ways to relax. However: Axtell points out that the state of being unable to relax is a symptom of anxiety disorder. Telling someone with anxiety disorder to “just relax” it’s like telling someone with a cold not to sneeze.
Axtell suggests acknowledging a person’s anxiety without judgment and perhaps remind them of times when they felt more relaxed—especially if it was a fun time you spent together—to help them realize that they won’t feel this way indefinitely.
“Maybe you should stop thinking so much”
That’s exactly what anxiety is, says Axtell: It puts people on high alert at all times for anything possibly dangerous or worrisome. Thoughts race, and new things to worry about crop up, anxious behaviors (like overeating, nail-biting, talking too fast) spike and become another source of anxiety, and the cycle perpetuates itself. Telling anxious people to stop thinking so much is not going to help them stop, says Axtell—it just gives them one more thing to worry about.
A better suggestion is to help sufferers shift their attention to something else. For example, you can point them toward these top tricks experts say help with anxiety.
“Maybe you just need a drink”
Self-medicating leads to all kinds of trouble, warns Axtell: Any perceived benefits won’t last and can lead to dependency. She points out that “many people suffering from anxiety also have substance abuse issues and may be involved in a recovery program that prohibits the use of any mood-altering substances.” This suggestion goes beyond insensitivity: It’s potentially dangerous.
Stress and anxiety are not the same thing. However, they are often used interchangeably. “Stress is a physical response to situations and events that are, for lack of a better word, stressful,” says Hafeez. Symptoms of stress include heart palpitations, increased blood pressure, facial flushing, mood swings, and anxiety, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Anxiety, on the other hand, affects the mind. “The reason many people conflate the two is that they often appear together, or in the case of anxiety, it can be triggered by stress,” she says. Here are other signs of an anxiety disorder.
Rather than telling them to forget their stress, Axtell suggests validating and offering support. For example, you can listen and respond with, “I hear what you’re saying. You feel stressed/anxious/worried. Let me know how I can help.” Here are what crisis counselors tell people with anxiety.
“Man up; grow up”
Unfortunately, some men are told that the experience of being a man doesn’t include mental health struggles. “Men feel anxiety, and that comment is very invalidating,” says Hafeez. The phrase “grow up,” serves a similar purpose, she says, by telling someone that their anxiety is a product of their immaturity. What they need is your support.
“I’m stressed out, too”
Not only does this statement conflate stress and anxiety, it also tends to trivialize the feelings of the person—similar to dismissing the anxious person’s feelings. Axtell recommends that you let yourself be led instead by a gentle “curiosity.” Support the anxious person by asking questions and listening without judgment. Don’t talk about your anxiety if you’ve never suffered the real thing—you can empathize without taking this step. Here’s how to improve your capacity for empathy.
“Stop sweating the small stuff”
And therein lies the rub: To a person with an anxiety disorder, there is no small stuff. Instead of offering cliches, Axtell encourages acceptance: Let an anxious person know that you understand that they are feeling anxious, that it’s okay, and that it will eventually pass.
“A lot of people have it worse”
The motivation behind this saying is often to try to bring perspective to the conversation. “It’s healthy for us to count our blessings. But to disregard one person’s issue because others have bigger issues, comparatively, is not healthy,” says Hafeez. Their problems do count, and this will only make them more self-conscious about their problems, she says. And, probably less likely to attempt to open up to you again. It may be a good exercise to find things that the person is grateful for, but this act shouldn’t be done to erase their experience. “Counting your blessings isn’t meant to erase your struggles, and other people’s hardships are not tools for disregarding your own,” she says. If you feel like you’re getting the wrong feedback, watch for these toxic patterns in your friendships.
“You’re making your own problems”
This statement not only blames the person with an anxiety disorder for their condition, but you’re saying their feelings are invalid. Brush up on how to be a supportive friend, and try taking another approach. If you’re at a loss for what to say to the anxious person in your life, offering a hug is another way to show support. If you can’t meet in person scheduling a time to virtually watch a favorite tv show or movie together.
“Just move on”
The problem with this phrase is similar to the others: You’re minimizing their experience. “It’s indicative of an underestimation of the person’s efforts to deal with their anxiety and the issues that trigger it,” says Hafeez. What you need to focus on as a support person in their life is kindness. “Admit that you do not have the answer, offer your support, and be there if the person needs you there,” she says. You can ask if they’d like your help or searching for the right professional to provide support, two things that show you care and you’re there. Next, check out the 5-second strategies to stop anxiety in its tracks.
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