If I am honest with myself, I have no idea when my anxiety troubles started. I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder about five years ago, but I exhibited symptoms years beforehand. Perhaps I was born with it. Whenever it started, I feel confident in saying that I have struggled with anxiety for long enough to know that the things people say to anxiety-sufferers can have a profound effect on their mood and well-being.
In my last article, I talked about ten things that should not be said to somebody with anxiety. I decided to approach things from the other direction in this article, and detail ten things that you can, and indeed should, say to someone with anxiety. The idea behind these is to provide non-judgemental solidarity with the anxiety sufferer, as well as an assurance of support, while they navigate their way through the difficult times.
1. “Are You OK?”
I like to call this the ‘checking in’ move, and it is particularly helpful to anxiety-sufferers who do not like to or are not always able to tell others when something is wrong. Asking “are you ok” gives them a window of opportunity to tell you if they are not. Also, even if they are all right at the time, the act of asking indicates that you are somebody who can be approached. If you are unsure whether asking the question would be appropriate, take a moment to look out for signs of anxiety in their body language before asking. Fidgeting, looking tense, frowning, and ‘spacing out’ are all common anxiety indicators.
2. “I’m Always Here if You Need to Talk”
Sometimes a person with anxiety will want to talk through what is bothering them. Other times they will prefer to be by themselves for a while so they can sort out what is going on in their heads. And then there will be times when they will want to be by themselves, but will want to talk it through later. Whatever the case, many people with anxiety worry that they will be bothering or burdening their friends and families if they share their anxiety problems. Letting the anxiety sufferer in your life know that you are always there to talk, and that they will not be bothering you by doing so, is a hugely reassuring thing to hear.
3. “Your Fears/Worries/Triggers Are Not Silly”
Anxiety can be embarrassing for a number of reasons. One such reason is that an anxiety sufferer’s ‘triggers’ (things, people, situations, etc., that aggravate a person’s mental illness) are often unusual. I personally get apprehensive walking into bookshops, because there have been too many times where I have been in a bookshop and seen a book cover that has made me panic. It can be hard to tell a loved one the details of your anxiety when you are worried you will be laughed at or thought to be ridiculous. Letting the anxiety-sufferer know that their fears/worries/triggers are not silly, and that you do not think they are silly for having them, will help the anxiety-sufferer feel safer opening up to you.
4. “Take Your Time”
In a society that is all about ‘going’ and ‘getting things done’ and ‘time-saving’, many of us (whether we have anxiety or not) feel bad when we are not being as ‘productive’ as we feel we could be. Anxiety-sufferers often feel burdened to get over anxiety attacks as quickly as possible. It is therefore important to let them know that there is no time frame with anxiety. If they are having a panic attack, give them the time they need to pause and get back to their normal equilibrium. If they are struggling with a more long-term anxiety spell, assure them that they have all the time in the world to recover, and you will be there for them if/when they are ready.
5. “Let’s Sort Through This Together”
Long-term problems become that much easier to deal with when there is camaraderie, and anxiety is no exception. Like two people can sit down and sort through monthly budgets or work out relationship problems, so too can two people talk through anxiety troubles. Talking about what is bothering us is great for letting out all the bad anxiety feelings, and it can also help to figure out what caused the anxiety troubles in the first place. But whether some amazing breakthrough is made or it is just a few minutes of sifting through feelings, it can be liberating to be able to share our thoughts with somebody we trust.
6. “How Can I Help?”
At the risk of pointing out the obvious, offers of help are helpful. It is difficult to predict when and how anxiety will affect different people on different days. Sometimes a good conversation might be all that is needed to work through it. Other times the anxiety could be so overwhelming that getting out of bed is hard. As such, this simple, open-ended question provides options. It also indicates kindness and a desire to support the anxiety sufferer, which will not be forgotten in a hurry.
7. “There’s a Cup of Tea Waiting for You at Home”
To get personal again for a moment, one thing my anxiety does is stop me living in the now, because my mind goes into strange, hypothetical scenarios that fill me with dread. At times like that, one of the best things anybody can do is remind me of really good, simple, real things that are there for me to enjoy now or in the near future. Some other good ones (for me, at least) are: “you’ll see the cats soon”, “you have time tonight to crochet two more rows of your project”, and “there’s a new episode of Murdoch Mysteries to watch”.
8. “This Feeling Will Pass”
Whilst in the grip of a bad anxiety spell, it can be impossible to remember a time when you were not feeling anxious. The anxiety is so overwhelming that you sometimes wonder if you are ever going to feel normal again. When this happens, a gentle reminder that the bad feelings will eventually go away can work wonders, because then the anxiety-sufferer will remember to anticipate that better time. It is like a beacon of hope.
9. “I Know You Can’t Control It”
Anxiety has had a lot of bad press over the years, and there is still a widely-held belief that it, and other mental illnesses, can be effectively controlled with will-power. Anybody with anxiety can accurately proclaim that this belief is false, but that does not stop people (including some very influential people with the power to change national medical and social policies) believing that mental illness is series of imaginary afflictions concocted by people hoping to gain pity from the masses. As the ones who feel this stigma, hearing our loved ones say ‘I know you can’t control it’, or ‘you are not making this up’, or ‘this is not your fault’ is a form of validation. It lets us know that you are taking us seriously, as well as our illness. That means a lot in a world where our illness is often dismissed.
10. “I Love You, No Matter What”
Those of us with anxiety understand that being among our friendship group or family circle can be a nuisance. We are sure that it is sometimes infuriating having to go to the store after a full day of work because you are out of milk and your anxiety-ridden loved one has not been able to bring themselves to leave the house all day. Sometimes we worry that we have become too much of an annoyance for our friends and family, and that they do not care about us anymore. It is a great relief to be told ‘I love you, no matter what’, because that assures us that our anxiety will not stop people from caring about us.
It is not always easy to work out how to best help somebody with anxiety, especially when they are going through a hard time. This list is intended to be a guideline, but as I said in my previous article, the best advice I can give is to learn what the individual anxiety sufferer finds helpful, and taking it from there. The important thing is to be compassionate. Believe me when I say that the anxiety-sufferer in your life will appreciate that compassion immensely.
[Feature Image: A gray scale photo of a person with light short hair. They are wearing glasses and their hands are covering their mouth.]