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7 Ways to Respond to Unhelpful Anxiety 'Advice'

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Recently in one of my therapy sessions, I was talking about the types of conversations that happen between people with generalized anxiety disorders and those who do not have it. It became clear how frustrating it can be to explain to someone what exactly is going on inside of my head. I brought up the typical articles we have all seen on the internet: “17 Things You Shouldn’t Say to Someone With Anxiety.”

Although these articles are useful, I believe they are also missing a key piece. How is someone with anxiety supposed to respond to someone who says these things without realizing they are speaking to someone with anxiety?

If we lived in an ideal world, those of us with anxiety would not need to worry about what others say, but unfortunately ignorance is bliss. It is unrealistic to believe everyone is going to read articles like, “17 Things You Shouldn’t Say to Someone With Anxiety.” But instead, I believe we can have an arsenal of statements we can say to better educate those around us.

So this is my list of things we can say in response to the unhelpful things people say sometimes.

1. “Everything is going to be fine.”

In my rational mind, I know everything will be fine, but another part tells me I am going to burn in a fiery pit of disaster. For some, “I know” works, but in some situations, more needs to be said. If they have been willing to stand by your side this long, consider saying, “I know everything will be fine, but right now everything seems like it is falling apart.” Follow this statement by asking for help with something that is currently  on your plate. Even if it isn’t the cause of anxiety, getting some help will make your day run smoother.

2. “I’m stressed out too.”

For me, helping someone else gets my mind off of my own anxieties — even if it is just for a brief amount of time. Take this as an invitation to worry about someone else’s problems for a while. Despite how I may feel sometimes, I am relatively good at de-stressing. Consider asking, “What’s going on?” or “How can I help?” Unfortunately, these questions can be one-way street. The person you are talking to may be bogged down with their stresses and may not care about yours right then. Why not turn it into a positive and get your mind off of your issues for a little while?

3. “Did I do something wrong?”

Before they make this all about them, your first response should be, “No, you didn’t.” However, if you don’t follow up with something quickly, they may dismiss your cry for help and may decide since you said “no” that everything is chill. I believe in this case, it helps to immediately put the blame somewhere else. “No, you didn’t do anything wrong. My co-workers are just causing some issues right now.” This may lead them to say, “Well, my co-workers suck too.” Nonetheless, they will feel relieved to know they didn’t make a mistake and that opens the door to being able to blow off steam.

4.  “Just get over it.”

“No shit!” is typically what I would like to say to this. The response, “Just get over it,” stems from the fact many do not understand we want to get over it, we just don’t know how. Consider saying, “It is just stuck in my head for some reason. Can we do something to get my mind off of it.” This is incredibly difficult to do for someone with anxiety. For me it is difficult because my anxiety is paired with a slight case of OCD also. So my brain is constantly telling me if I don’t get something done right then my life will fall apart. Living with anxiety though, I have to remember sometimes tabling something and coming back to it later may be the best option.

5. “It’s all in your head.”

This statement can open up some of the best conversations about explaining anxiety to someone. I think the first response should be, “It’s in my heart too.” This lets them know it is more serious than just making up something. Typically, our brain is the part of us that controls our unwanted anxiety. What we feel in our gut, throat, heart or wherever our anxiety decides to destroy us, is our true feelings. It’s the part of us that is our reminder that our brain is struggling.

6.  “You really need to calm down.”

Has this ever been said to you in the moment of an anxiety attack? There may truly never be a proper response to this. I think no response is probably better than a half-assed response. So this response can happen two different ways. If you are having an anxiety attack in this moment, taking the time to calm down is the best option. So the best response would be, “You’re right. I need a few minutes,” and then leave the situation.

7. “I totally understand what you’re going through.”

This is a statement that can get me from 0 to 10 really quickly! And the truth is, unless they live with a diagnosed anxiety disorder, they truly do not know what I am going through. However, everyone has anxiety to some capacity, and understanding everyone has anxiety is the first step to responding to this statement. Believe it or not, they may have a way to help you cope. So considering (counting to 10 if you are heated) asking, “How would/did you handle this?” As they begin to respond, keep in mind what they say may or may not help you out.

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Unsplash photo via James Garcia.

Originally published: September 5, 2017
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