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What Not to Say When Anxiety Attacks (and What to Say Instead)

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So yesterday I came clean about my anxiety issues. Which, ironically, caused all sorts of anxiety for a few hours as I fretted over what all my friends and family would think/say/do.

Now, I just want to talk about what not to say to someone who has anxiety. Yes, all of these have been said to me, so I know exactly how little they helped in my personal situation.

Here are some comments that are unhelpful when anxiety attacks:

1. “It’s not worth getting all worked up over.”

I know. Trust me. The logical part of my brain is screaming this very sentence at me as soon as an actual attack starts to happen. Every logical part of my body knows most of what I’m worried about/anxious about will never come to pass.

If only anxiety were logical.

2. “You’re freaking out over nothing.”

To you, yes. It’s nothing. To me, it’s my worst fears coming true. It might just be a bug to you; to me, it’s a carrier of deadly diseases out to kill me and my dog. It doesn’t help when you tell me it’s nothing. It just makes me feel small and judged.

3. “Seriously, what’s the worst that can happen?”

We don’t want to answer that question. The worst that can happen is the thing that controls our anxiety and our every waking thought in the middle of an attack.

4. “Can’t you take something for that?”

Yes. Sometimes I am on medication. If you’re sick, you take meds, right? Anxiety can be a type of sickness. There was a time when I couldn’t control the anxiety anymore and I went on medication. It doesn’t make me a bad person. But whether or not to be medicated for anxiety is a personal choice. It’s also a hard choice. There are pros and cons to both sides of the argument. Please don’t make us feel bad about our choice to not medicate either.

5. “Your faith isn’t strong enough/you don’t trust God enough/you’re not praying enough.”

This one is worth a whole blog on its own. But, as a Christian, you would not believe the number of times someone has equated my anxiety with my faith. Just because I have anxiety doesn’t mean I don’t trust God. It doesn’t mean I don’t try hard to follow Him. It doesn’t mean I don’t spend hours in prayer. Anxiety isn’t about faith. Faith, quite frankly, is the only thing that gets me through anxious thoughts sometimes.

6. “Just breathe. Calm down.”

Breathing is second nature to most people. And yes, deep breathing has helped my anxiety immensely because it gives me something to focus on other than whatever is causing the attack. But, there is not amount of breathing that can make everything “better.” Don’t tell me to calm down, either. Trust me, if I could, I would.

7. “Anxiety isn’t a real disorder/you’re looking for attention.”

Saying anxiety isn’t a real disorder is like saying what I’m feeling isn’t real. Trust me, it’s as real to me as a headache (which I get because of the anxiety, by the way) and any other issue I have. People don’t talk about mental illness because they are told it’s not a real thing all the time. We suffer in silence because talking about it is taboo and you think we’re looking for attention. I don’t want to be known as Anxiety Girl. Trust me.

8. “I’m a worrier, too.”

I appreciate that, I really do. But worry is not the same thing as anxiety. Worry you can fret, process and move on in a reasonable amount of time. Anxiety means you stew, obsess and get to the point where your anxiety pushes you to a place where you no longer feel in control.

Instead, this is what I’d rather hear:

1. “How can I help?”

Most of the time, dealing with anxiety and combating a panic attack is a personal thing. Everyone is different, so ask the people in your life (individually) what you can do to help them with their anxiety. The best time to ask this is when they are not in the middle of a panic attack, FYI. They may need you to do nothing, or they may give you ways you can support them (like being someone they can text at 2:00 a.m. if needed, someone to run errands if they’re in a really bad place, etc).

2. “Is it OK if I hug/touch/comfort you?”

If you know me, you know I am a hugger. I love to give and receive hugs and physical touch is definitely a love language. Except when I’m panicking. If I’m in the middle of a really stressful attack, I don’t want to be touched. For me, a hug right at that moment feels suffocating. So, ask before you hug/comfort.

3. “What’s the worst that you think will happen?”

Yes, this was on the “what not to say” list, as well. It’s all about tone with this question. Sometimes my husband asks me what’s the worst that can happen and it helps me realize I’m freaking out over something that is highly unlikely, if not completely unlikely. Case in point: I used to have panic attacks every time my husband left for an overnight trip. I was convinced something horrible would happen to our dog, who he adores. In my anxiety/panic/illogical state I then convinced myself that if something happened to the dog, my husband would leave me. (Yes, writing it out makes me realize how silly it was). So, him asking about the worst thing that could happen prompted us to have a conversation about my fears and help me work through them.

The difference is he asked because he was trying to help me work through my anxiety, not minimize it.

4. “I love you. I accept you. Just as you are.”

One of the underlying fears of anxiety issues (at least in my circle) is that our disorder makes us unlovable and unaccepted. When we panic about something small, we are also panicking our anxiety will make the people we have in our lives turn away from us. Remind us, especially when things are rough, that you love us and you accept all of us, not just the parts of us you see when we have our anxiety under control.

5. “I believe in you.”

I know the things I fear and worry about seem silly to most people. What I need from you is to believe that I believe they are real. You don’t have to believe they’re true, but I need you to believe that, in my head, this is what I think is going to happen. We can talk through it and work through what is imagined fear and what is legitimate, but validate my feelings. Believe in me when I say I want to get better. Believe in me when I say I don’t know how to get better.

Above all, remember that people with anxiety need to be loved and trusted and supported. We need to know you aren’t judging us because of our illness. We need to know we can trust you with the anxious parts of our hearts and the non-anxious parts of our hearts. We need to know that you won’t run away when we panic and that you’ll help us pick up the pieces when an attack is over.

Follow this journey on The Journey.

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Originally published: June 8, 2016
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