If you're one of the 40 million people in the U.S. who suffers with anxiety, you probably already know which comments are helpful — and which are, to be blunt, you’d wish you’d never hear again. For those without anxiety, however, it's not always easy to know what to say. Most of the time, people just want to help.
Unfortunately, even a well-intentioned comment can make someone with anxiety feel worse. Here are eight things to never say to someone with anxiety, along with tips for ensuring your comments are positive and uplifting.
What Not to Say to Someone with Anxiety
Anxiety can take a toll on just about every aspect of a person’s life. According to experts like psychologist Golda Ginsburg, who talked to Time Health, anxiety can be so severe it brings on a panic attack. When a person experiences a panic attack, their body goes into a “fight or flight” response as if they’re in serious danger. This elevates the heart rate and sends adrenaline pumping through their veins.
The fight or flight response is important, and an individual’s survival can depend on it, but living in that state for long periods of time is physically and emotionally exhausting. Ginsburg says that people with severe anxiety can suffer from chronic insomnia. Others may throw up when their anxiety becomes unbearable. People who have panic attacks can even feel like they’re dying.
These are serious symptoms, and certainly not ones to be taken lightly. This is why a casual comment can be so damaging for someone who deals with anxiety. Here’s what to never tell someone who is suffering with anxiety.
1. “It’s All in Your Head”
When people say this, it’s usually a suggestion that the person experiencing anxiety has the power to simply reverse their thoughts. The insinuation is that getting rid of anxiety is as easy as deciding you’re not going to have it.
In reality, anxiety doesn’t work that way. It’s not an imaginary state, nor does it happen because the person is being dramatic. While anxiety is a neurological condition, which means it originates in the mind, it’s much more than feeling a little down or experiencing a few negative thoughts.
Anxiety is a mental health disorder that can seriously impact a person’s life. Telling someone they’re imagining it or that they can overcome it by wishing it away trivializes anxiety.
2. “Can’t You Just Calm Down?”
Anxiety is not a choice, and asking an anxiety sufferer to just calm down is like asking someone with a broken ankle to just stop having a broken bone. Most people wouldn’t dream of encouraging someone with diabetes to just stop having high blood sugar, yet many people view mental health differently than physical ailments.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), most people who live with a mental illness say others have blamed them for their condition at some point in their lives. One way to combat this is to equate physical and mental illness by giving them the same respect and support. In other words, don’t dismiss anxiety as something a person can wish away or reverse if they choose.
3. “Just Push Through It”
Our society tends to encourage self-reliance and personal grit. You can see this in movies, where heroes tend to be people who overcome challenges and solve problems through sheer determination and a positive attitude. If you’re on social media, you may even see inspirational quotes or memes that tout the benefits of striving for happiness and having a positive outlook.
While these portrayals and messages mean well, they can be defeating for people with anxiety. When you have a mental health condition, you usually can’t just pull yourself up by your bootstraps.
No one wants to feel like this. If someone with anxiety (or depression, or any other mental illness) could just wish their condition away, they would. But they can’t — because that isn’t how brain chemistry works.
Instead of encouraging someone to “just get over it” or “let it go,” experts say it’s better to offer support and a listening ear if the person feels comfortable sharing their feelings. Sometimes, people with anxiety just need to know they have a support network.
4. “You Need a Drink”
Studies show that people who self-medicate with alcohol to treat anxiety are more likely to develop a dependence on alcohol. For someone who doesn’t have an anxiety disorder, an occasional drink might be a pleasurable way to relax and unwind after a stressful day.
For those with anxiety, however, drinking and other forms of self-medication can often lead to a co-occuring disorder like alcohol or drug addiction. Alcohol can cause depression, and there is a strong link between alcohol abuse and other types of mental illness.
5. “You’re Making a Big Deal Out of Nothing”
As a kid, your parents might have said something like “you’re making a mountain out of a molehill” or “you’re being dramatic.” In a lot of cases, these admonishments made sense. For example, if your mom told you no candy before dinner, and you threatened to run away from home because of it, she might have had a point.
When it comes to anxiety, however, it’s important to avoid phrases that marginalize or minimize the person’s feelings. For someone who doesn’t suffer with anxiety, it can be hard to understand why an anxiety sufferer is struggling.
The best course is to stop trying to understand and to simply offer support. Experts say you can help by being present in the moment when a friend or loved one has anxiety. If they’re comfortable with it, you can also help them focus on deep breathing techniques for anxiety.
6. “I Know How You Feel”
While you might think of this phrase as a good thing, experts say it’s important to be careful with this one. On the surface, offering words of sympathy and commiseration can seem encouraging.
However, if you’ve never suffered with anxiety, you truly don’t know how the other person feels. To use the broken ankle or diabetes example, you probably wouldn’t tell someone with those conditions you understand their challenges if you’ve never experienced diabetes or a broken bone.
On the other hand, if you have firsthand experience with anxiety, mental health professionals say that sharing your personal history can often help the other person feel better. If you know the person well, and they feel comfortable with you, you can even offer tips for how you manage your anxiety. For example, if you’ve found that using a weighted blanket helps you sleep better and feel less anxious, you might offer to buy them a weighted wrap or blanket of their own.
7. “Other People Have It Worse”
Maybe there was a time in your life when you struggled to make ends meet, or you lived paycheck to paycheck after you lost your job. If someone had told you, “well, at least you’re not homeless,” it probably wouldn’t have made you feel better — and it might have made you feel worse. Now, on top of your financial difficulties, you feel guilty for seemingly not appreciating what you have.
This is what it’s like when people tell anxiety sufferers to be grateful or to think about the less fortunate. As Time to Change, a mental health support site, puts it, telling someone to be grateful perpetuates the stigma that mental illness isn’t really an illness.
Additionally, individuals with anxiety are often empathic people who feel deeply about social issues and injustice. As a result, hearing others imply that they’re ungrateful or selfish for having anxiety can often make their symptoms worse.
8. “You Need to Try Harder”
Many people with anxiety describe it as exhausting, both mentally and physically. Existing in a state of near-constant fight or flight response can wear down the body and the mind. If getting rid of anxiety was as easy as trying harder, most people with anxiety would leap for joy.
But coping with anxiety isn’t a matter of just deciding to work harder at it. For many people, anxiety is a lifelong battle, and about half of all anxiety sufferers deal with depression as well.
Instead of encouraging an anxiety sufferer to try harder, experts say you can learn how to help people with anxiety by simply asking them. You might be surprised how forthright they are about what kinds of support work for them.
You can also offer to spend time with them. Ask them to go for a walk or check out an exercise class if they feel up to it. Be gentle with your support and suggestions, and don’t worry if you have to ask more than once. Many people with anxiety need a little extra encouragement, but they feel a lot better once they exercise or interact with a supportive friend.
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Disclaimer: The content on this website is not intended as a substitute for medical advice. Talk to your doctor or healthcare provider before undertaking any type of therapy or treatment.