Do you know somebody who struggles with anxiety?
What am I saying here? Of course you know somebody who struggles with anxiety. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), around 40 million adults in the United States are affected by one or more anxiety disorders. Not-for-profit organisation Anxiety UK similarly says that more than 1 in 10 people are likely to have a ‘debilitating anxiety disorder’ at some point in their lives. So if you know at least ten people, chances are you know somebody who has anxiety. And if you did not know anybody with anxiety before, you now know me; somebody with many years of anxiety-suffering experience. How do you do?
Like most of my anxiety-suffering brethren, I have had my friends and family tell me things about my anxiety that are unhelpful at best and downright debilitating at worst. While I firmly believe these utterances are always said with good intentions, they usually do more harm than good. Bearing that in mind, here are ten things not to say to someone who has anxiety.
1. “Calm Down!”
Telling somebody with anxiety to calm down is a bit like telling somebody with hay fever to stop sneezing. If we look at its foundations, anxiety involves being in a constant or near-constant state of stress. It is a deeply unpleasant sensation, and if anybody with anxiety were able to calm down on command, we would do it without question. But we cannot, because our anxiety will not let us. As well as that, some people find that that being told to calm down adds to their anxiety, because they become frustrated or feel guilty about not being able to do the calming down that has been asked of them.
2. “It’s All in Your Head”
Really? Because I thought at least some of it was located in my left buttock. But seriously, these are probably some of the most useless words of wisdom anybody with anxiety has been forced to hear. We know it’s all in our heads. We know our symptoms happen because our brains are hyper-aware and playing tricks on us. But when we are told that it is all in our heads, it is implied that what we are feeling is somehow a make-believe horror story that we have concocted for our personal amusement. This is 100% false. Anxiety is not amusing, and it is not playful make-believe. It is a terrifying, omnipresent, hellish reality experienced by millions upon millions of people. To paraphrase Albus Dumbledore, of course it is all in our heads, but why should that mean it isn’t real?
3. “It’s Really not a Big Deal”
Whenever I hear about this one, I want to respond with a sarcastic “you’re right. And now that you’re done completely invalidating my feelings and my mental illness, let’s go to the nearest kid’s birthday party and see how many of those small humans we can make cry”. Although the things those of us with anxiety worry about might seem trivial, for us, they are anything but. We are aware that our fears and our thoughts are often irrational, but we can’t control the way these things affect us. That is how anxiety works. By saying that the things we fear are not a big deal, you are inadvertently implying that our anxiety, and the suffering we endure as a result of our anxiety, is also not a big deal.
4. “Everything Will be Fine”
I can certainly see how this seems like a comforting thing to say, and sometimes it is. But here is the problem: it cannot always be guaranteed that everything will be fine, and if something does go wrong, any previous assertions that “everything will be fine” become completely invalidated in the anxiety-sufferer’s mind. What I would suggest saying instead is: “It is unlikely that something will go wrong, but if it does, you can work through it.” This way, you will be covering all bases.
5. “I Know How You Feel”
You don’t. Sorry. Or, rather, I would be sorry, except I would not wish my anxiety on anybody. Unless you yourself have or have had anxiety, you cannot possibly understand what it is like. Imagine a non-asthmatic telling an asthmatic that they know what it is like to have asthma, and you have a rough idea of what it is like to be told “I know how you feel” by somebody who has never had anxiety. It is insulting and it trivialises the reality of our condition.
6. “Have a Drink; You’ll Feel Better”
It is standard practice in our culture to offer somebody an alcoholic beverage when they are sad, or tired, or angry, or some other negative emotion. And I will admit, sometimes it works quite well in the short-term. But anxiety is not a short-term variation in mood. It is constant and unrelenting, and trying to quiet somebody’s anxiety with alcohol will only work for a few hours before they are sober, the hangover is gone, and they are feeling anxious again. There are better, healthier, and longer-lasting ways to treat anxiety, and trying to solve the problem with alcohol invites the risk of addiction and/or dependency.
7. “Other People are Suffering from Much Worse Conditions”
I like to call this one the ‘Shut Up and Stop Complaining You Selfish Cow’ move, because that is precisely what I hear whenever anybody says it. Anxiety makes us feel a lot of things (worry, fear, panic, etc.), and one emotion we feel that does not attract a lot of attention is guilt. Personally, I feel guilty most days for being anxious about things that might happen to me, because I know there are people out there dealing with these same things, or worse things, that have happened to them. Believe me; we know that there are many out there who have it worse than us. To point it out just adds to the guilt we are already feeling.
8. “You Should Try Meditation/Yoga/Veganism/etc”
I am not here to deny the potential of any of these activities in helping people with anxiety. Meditation, for instance, has been known to work wonders. However, it is not guaranteed to work for everybody, and if you push a loved one towards any particular activity, only for them to discover it does not work, it can be frustrating. Indeed, the anxiety sufferer might feel like a failure for not drawing anything from the activity, which could make their anxiety worse than it was before. By all means feel free to suggest different anxiety-curbing activities, but be sure not to pressure them into doing anything they do not want to do.
9. “Why Won’t You Tell Me What’s Wrong?”
It can be difficult for us anxiety sufferers to communicate our feelings. We might feel embarrassed or ashamed about being anxious. We might not have the words to explain our anxiety properly. And, yes, sometimes we might not want to tell certain people within our friendship/family groups what we are feeling, for whatever reason. Of course it is frustrating when you want to help somebody you care about and they are not telling you what is wrong, but making them feel guilty about their silence is not going to help them at all. Instead, let them know you are there for them if they need you, and if they do not reach out to you, do not take it personally. The decision to reach out is theirs to make, and theirs alone.
10. “Oh, Here We Go Again!”
I get it: anxiety is awkward. Feelings are awkward. It’s tempting to try and alleviate the awkwardness with a bit of humour. “Whoops, Sarah’s having a sad attack”, “Get ready for the whirlwind freak out adventure hosted by Alex”, “Leave it to Matt – he worries enough for all of us!” And, yes, some people with anxiety like when a little humour is applied to it. But I cannot stress enough how important it is to not treat an anxiety sufferer’s situation lightly unless you are absolutely sure they will be okay with you doing it. Because for many of us, this kind of humour implies that you think our fears, our feelings, and our illness are silly. You invalidate things that are very real and very serious for us, and you make it highly unlikely that we will ever trust you with our anxiety troubles again.
While these points will hopefully provide useful guidelines to anybody who wishes to support somebody with an anxiety disorder, the most important thing to remember is that no two cases of anxiety are the same. The best way to learn how to help somebody with anxiety is to take the time and learn about how that person’s anxiety works. From there you can work out how to best support your loved one together.