Anxiety is the most common mental illness in the United States. It’s true, look it up. Anxiety is an epidemic, and chances are, you know one or more people who are living with anxiety. While we can’t cure anxiety, there are steps you can take to help support friends and family members who are living with anxiety disorders.
As someone with not one, but four different anxiety disorders, it is important that I have a really strong support system. And even though I do, nothing is flawless, and having someone say the wrong thing at the wrong time is super hurtful and can make you feel even more misunderstood. So, I created a list of the 10 worst things to say to someone with anxiety – and included some helpful alternatives as well.
1. Stop Overreacting!
Telling someone to stop overreacting minimizes their experience. Instead, try saying, “I can see how hard this is for you.” Validating their feelings is much more supportive and helps them feel like they are being heard and understood.
2. If You Want Attention, Just Ask for It
A great alternative to this is asking “How can I help you?” Honestly, I don’t know anyone who has anxiety or an anxiety disorder for attention. There are much better ways of getting attention than faking a panic attack. Don’t assume the worst intentions, especially if you have never personally experienced severe anxiety.
3. If I Had Your Problems, I’d Kill Myself.
Suicide is never something to joke about. Even mentioning suicide can be triggering. While it may sound supportive to say that you would kill yourself, it is not. What you are probably trying to say is that you are impressed by their strength, resilience, and the way they are handling obstacles. And if that’s what you mean to say, just say it.
4. Why Are You So Needy?
Ask, “Can you describe how you are feeling?” Or “Can you show me where you are feeling the most tension?” This question is more supportive, but more importantly, it is grounding. When you ask someone to describe their feelings or physically point to where they are feeling anxious, it allows that person to distract themselves from their racing thoughts.
5. Just Breathe!
Don’t issue commands. Ask if they want to take some deep breaths with you. This is far more considerate and less demanding. Having someone to take deep breaths with can feel really calming. When I am anxious and someone tells me to breathe, I start hyperventilating. I mean, that is breathing, right? But in all seriousness, I like to follow the breathing rhythm of someone else so I am focusing on them instead of my anxiety.
6. You Always Get Over This. You Are Fine.
When people are anxious, all of their rational thoughts go away. So, yes, I do know that I get through it every time. But that’s not what I need to hear at the moment. Try saying, “I’m sure this feels like it is never going to end. Let me know if there is anything I can do for you.” I need someone to be present with me. Be here now. Don’t look toward the future when I am struggling in this current moment. Help me stay grounded in the present.
7. There is Nothing to Worry About.
Who are you to say that I have nothing to worry about? You don’t know what triggers me. Telling me that I have nothing to worry about discounts my feelings, and is not supportive. A better alternative is saying, “This must be very stressful for you.”
8. You Must be Worried About Something.
Oftentimes, people assume that anxiety must be about something, but actually, a lot of the time it is about nothing at all. Many anxiety disorders come from a chemical imbalance in the brain. In fact, Generalized Anxiety Disorder is exactly this, excessive worry that can happen without an immediate cause or trigger. Try asking, “Is there something, in particular, that is making you anxious? If not, that’s ok.”
9. You Won’t Even Remember This in a Few Days.
Telling someone that this will be better in a few days does not make the current pain go away. Be present with them. Try saying, “Let’s check in to see how you are feeling in a few days. But please let me know if you are still feeling anxious and we can find someone to help you.”
When someone tells me to relax, I immediately become quite frustrated. I would relax if I could. Most of the time, my anxiety is involuntary. If could control it, I wouldn’t be in this situation. Try asking if there is anything you can do to help the person feel more relaxed instead of just issuing a command.
Now that you know what to say and what NOT to say to someone with anxiety, I hope you can be a part of someone’s support system. No one expects that you are always going to say the right thing, but saying the wrong thing less often is a step in the right direction.
Sophie is the President of Here.Now.’s Board of Directors and is also the author of “Don’t Tell Me To Relax: One Teen’s Journey to Survive Anxiety.” She’s passionate about destigmatizing mental illnesses and promoting mental health and resiliency.