5 Things You Shouldn't Say to Someone With Anxiety
I have recently started to share openly and write about my journey with generalized anxiety and panic disorder. And while the response I’ve received from my family, friends and the world at large has been largely supportive, there have been a few exchanges that have been cringeworthy. What has struck me from these exchanges is a lot of times, well-meaning people without anxiety don’t have the language or the understanding to talk about these disorders. And unfortunately, some of these well-meaning interactions can lead to feelings of isolation, hurt feelings and in worst-case scenarios, more anxiety.
So, how do we talk about anxiety? I think it’s useful to start with a list of what not to say to people with anxiety. This will help our loved ones and friends avoid setting off a potential mine-field explosion when what they really want to do is express their care and concern.
Here are five things not to say to someone with anxiety:
1. “What do you have to be anxious about?”
There is still a common misconception that anxiety is always a result of circumstance, which is just untrue. While it may be true that certain events can trigger anxiety, the lack of apparent stress doesn’t mean a person can’t be anxious. While outward appearances seem to indicate I have an easy life, it still doesn’t stop the way my brain responds in relation to certain stimulation.
2. “You don’t ever look anxious.”
The idea that people with anxiety look or act a certain way goes along with the assumption I don’t have anything to be anxious about. The truth is I’ve had 41 years to learn how to cover up my anxiety to make myself more palatable to those around me. It’s only been recently I’ve realized that in not being honest about my struggles, I’m being disingenuous in my relationships and am paying a steep personal cost.
3. “Do you take medication?”
I can completely understand someone’s curiosity about treatment options for improving my anxiety. However, I will say this as nicely as I can — it is no one’s business whether I’m on medication to manage my anxiety except my own. Again, I appreciate the person who asks this question may be curious, but the few times it has come up, it has seemed to be with a gossip-gatherers glee rather than out of true concern for my well-being. If I want to discuss my medication with you, trust me, I’ll bring it up.
4. “Have you tried… [supplements, dietary changes, etc.]?”
When I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, I was inundated with suggestions from folks that firmly believed the right diet, supplement, [insert your idea here] would help cure me. Now, I know these were absolutely meant with the best of intentions, however, my care was best left to the professionals — medical professionals that is. The same is true when treating a condition like anxiety. Don’t get me wrong, I believe in the value of a healthy diet, exercise and fresh air in the management of my anxiety, but offering unsolicited advice can feel intrusive.
5. “Just calm down.”
Becoming calm is a goal, but it doesn’t offer me any tangible way to get there. And when I’m hyperventilating or feeling like I’m going to crawl outside my skin, telling me to just calm myself sounds like a cruel joke. If I could just “calm” down, I would. Do I have specific tools to help me reach a calmer state? Absolutely, but it takes a series of steps to get me there and an anxiety attack is not something I can will away by just telling myself to calm down.
Anxiety and panic disorders can completely overwhelm both our body and mind. All too often, people struggling with anxiety exacerbate anxious episodes by being cruel to ourselves in our head. “Get it together!” we scream at ourselves. “Calm down!” But none of these thoughts are helpful. The people that love us want to help, but they may parrot these very same thoughts because they don’t know any better. It is only through an open, authentic and vulnerable dialogue can we help create conversations that support and lift up anxiety sufferers while deepening the very relationships that help sustain us through our dark and anxious times. The world can be a scary place for those of us with anxiety, but by making an effort to understand our struggle, you can become our safe harbor during the storms of our anxious episodes.
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Getty Images photo via Rively