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What Not to Say to Someone With Anxiety (and What to Say Instead)

My journey with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) began at a young age. Nothing apparent triggered it — it just started happening. I distinctly remember striving to be one of the best students in my entire second-grade class. My heart yearned to please my teacher, for fear I was a bad person if I didn’t. Everyone had to like me and I instantly shamed myself if I got the opposite reaction. The same behaviors would continue and lead to my first panic attack in third-grade. The reason for it? I had an irrational fear my parents would ground me, even though they never told me they would do it.

Growing up, I got told many things about myself and my anxiety. I shamed myself for not being able to calm myself down. I scolded myself when I couldn’t make it go away. I felt like I was weak for many years. It wasn’t until I began receiving medication and counseling in college that I discovered those words were complete lies.

Here are the three things I was told about my anxiety while growing up with GAD that were harmful:

1. “You just need to calm down.”

Teachers constantly told me this, expecting it to magically help me. It never did, by the way. Yes, I need to deal with the anxiety, but I can’t just “calm down.” It’s not that simple. I can’t make irrational anxiety go away in a snap. I’m unable to go from being on the edge”to relaxed in a second. I wish I could, but that’s not how GAD works.

2. “You need to stop worrying.”

If I could, I promise you I would. I wish I could. But anxiety is debilitating, often before I even realize what it’s doing to me. If I see it coming, I do everything to fight it. But sometimes, the most irrational fears about nothing strike me down before I know I’m falling.

3. “Just relax.”

This was the worst line I was told. Again, my teachers thought this was helpful, but all it did was imply I just worry too much and need to get ahold of myself. When my mind is racing with thoughts going 1,000 miles per hour, I can’t simply flip a switch and turn it off. I can’t just tell my mind to stop.

Here are three things that would have been more helpful to say:

1. “You’re not alone.”

Oh, how I wish I had known I wasn’t the only person struggling with anxiety! Growing up, I often felt isolated from everyone around me and alone in this battle. If I knew there was even one more person out there that had the same struggles, it would have been such a great comfort.

2. “It’s not your fault.”

Robin William’s character Sean Maguire says it best in “Good Will Hunting” — I needed to hear someone say that suddenly being anxious wasn’t my fault. I felt out of control, yet I always thought it was my fault in some sort of way. Because of the what others told me, I beat myself up on a daily basis, telling myself I just needed to do more to control it.

3. “There is hope.”

Hopelessness was a constant theme in my life. Although I knew from my faith that hope existed, I didn’t think it existed for me. I only thought it existed for others. I also thought there was no hope for the anxiety that affected me more than I wish to share.

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Thinkstock photo via javitrapero