While most people deal with periods of nervousness or anxiousness in their lives, it’s nothing remotely comparable to what those with anxiety disorder go through on a daily basis.
People with anxiety disorders experience worry, guilt, shame, and panic in situations that don’t typically cause such intense feelings in others.
Ceaseless feelings of fear and uncertainty take control, making life with an anxiety disorder incredibly difficult.
Anxiety isn’t just tough for the people that have it, it’s also hard on their friends and loved ones. It can be emotionally taxing and mentally demanding on both ends.
When someone you love has anxiety, planning needs to be meticulous, certain situations must be avoided, and since emotional needs can change daily, sometimes plans have to be changed or dropped last minute. It’s a lot of work.
Unfortunately, anxiety disorders are often misunderstood. It’s hard to get in their head to understand why they think the way they do.
Knowing what to say when they’re suffering is equally difficult, and while your words usually come from a heartfelt place, a lack of understanding can cause comments to be more hurtful than helpful.
As someone who suffers from anxiety, I understand your confusion. Consider the following a simple guide to avoiding heartache on both sides. Here are 15 things that you should never say to someone who is struggling with an anxiety disorder.
1. Oh, here we go again (eye roll)…
This is the quickest way to amp up a loved one’s anxiety and ensure that they will never express their feelings to you again. Don’t ever do this.
2. You’re only like this because it’s so trendy to be anxious right now.
Anxiety disorders aren’t trendy; they’re just incredibly common — in fact, they’re the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults age 18 and older.
Let me make this perfectly plain: being diagnosed with a mental illness is not trendy
With some of the stigma surrounding mental illness starting to fade, more and more people are discussing their struggles with this debilitating condition.
While I would never argue against this discussion, I can see how it may cause those with little understanding of anxiety to think this is nothing more that a passing fad.
Let me make this perfectly plain: being diagnosed with a mental illness is not trendy. It’s not tragically beautiful, romantic, fanciful or glamorous. It’s a soul crushing, constant battle to reach a state of something even resembling “normalcy.”
Furthermore, treating anxiety as a trend only adds to the confusion and misconstrued ideas that lead to mental illness stigma.
3. Calm down
Anxiety disorders are incapacitating in that you simply can’t “calm down.” No one can relax on command, especially not someone suffering from anxiety.
Telling them to calm down is invalidating and insinuates that they choose to have their anxiety disorder. Mental illnesses are not a choice, and believe me, no one would choose to feel paralyzing levels of anxiety.
If they could control it, they would, and telling them to calm down only serves to make them feel even more frustrated and anxious.
4. Everything is going to be fine
I’m guilty of using this phrase myself — even to fellow anxiety sufferers. Though, platitudes like this are meant to be supportive, someone in the throes of anxiety isn’t likely to react to the comforting words the way you might hope.
Unfortunately, anxiety is an adept liar, and is very good at convincing sufferers that nothing is ever going to be alright again.
You can remain encouraging by telling them that it’s okay to feel what they’re feeling.
5. You need to push through it. Suck it up. Just do it!
Do you know what doesn’t work when trying to encourage someone with an anxiety disorder to face their fears? Tough love.
People with anxiety disorders can’t control their responses to fear
Somewhere along the way, people got it in their heads that anxiety disorders are all a matter of being “a wimp”, “a baby”, or “just plain weak.” But people with anxiety disorders can’t control their responses to fear — and tough love just doesn’t work.
Forcing someone with an anxiety disorder to face their fears will make things exponentially worse. It will cause more anxiety, generate feelings of shame for being unable to control their disorder, and if you push too hard, potentially lead to a panic attack.
This is an incredibly cruel and senseless thing to do or say to someone who is anxious. Using phrases such as this makes them feel defensive and unsupported. It’s best to simply let them deal with things in their own way.
6. I get anxious too!
While fear, nervousness, and anxiety are natural parts of your life, these feelings dissipate over time for various reasons.
Just because you have experienced mild feelings of anxiousness in the past does not mean that you can understand what someone struggling with an anxiety disorder is going through. It’s simply a false comparison, and by bringing it up, you may be accidentally trivializing someone’s struggle.
Anxiety disorders completely consume a person’s life. Worries are far more intense, interfering with a person’s ability to perform daily life chores, and incredibly difficult to manage without help.
The only way this statement will be helpful is if you have an anxiety disorder — only then can you truly relate.
7. Have a drink, it’ll help you relax.
Having a few drinks can certainly be a relaxing experience, which is why many people assume that if someone with an anxiety disorder has a couple drinks, they’ll finally be able to let go of their worries.
While a cocktail or two may take the edge off, it’s a slippery slope those with anxiety disorders should avoid at all costs. People with mood disorders are twice as likely to develop drug and alcohol addiction problems.
You should always aspire to be a voice of reason with your loved one — don’t encourage them to take part in self destructive or potentially harmful behaviors.
8. This is not as big of a deal as you’re making it out to be.
When you tell someone with anxiety that something upsetting them isn’t a big deal, they translate it into being told they’re overreacting.
Whatever it is that they’re worrying about is clearly important to them
Whatever it is that they’re worrying about is clearly important to them, and in that moment, it feels like the biggest, scariest, worst thing that could happen. Not only is it not up to you to determine what embodies a “big deal”, you also can’t expect them to just turn that fear off.
Furthermore, pointing out that a fear is irrational doesn’t help in the slightest. They already know it’s irrational, and it irritates them just as much as it does you. Unfortunately, knowing that their fears are unjustified doesn’t stop racing thoughts or the anticipation of hundreds of different worst-case scenarios.
The truth is, if it were as easy as saying “that’s irrational, so there’s no need to worry about it,” the majority of people with anxiety disorders would be cured.
9. Why are you always so overwhelmed by everything?
The good times and get-togethers you enjoy can be completely paralyzing for someone with anxiety.
They often exist in a hyper-alert state, which means that a situation that doesn’t seem that overwhelming to others can cause their head to spin. They’re overly aware of everything going on around them — every noise, action, smell, light, person, object.
It’s incredibly overwhelming and overstimulating.
10. Just let it go of it.
A common part of anxiety disorders is constantly overthinking things. This overthinking stems from memories stored in part of the limbic system of the brain that the mind uses to determine if we are at ‘risk.’ These memories are often the result of traumatic incidents, and are stored in a completely different manner and region of the brain than everyday memories.
What happens in these cases is that the brain seeks to make links between traumatic memories and its present situation. When the brain is stuck in this cycle, letting go of things, such as worry and other painful emotions can be very difficult.
People with anxiety can’t always just “let it go,” their brain simply doesn’t work that way.
11. Other people have things much worse, you know.
Everyone who has ever faced any adversity always knows that things could be worse — that doesn’t change the situation at hand or make their feelings any less valid.
Throwing a phrase like this in the face of someone with anxiety will not cause them to suddenly realize how much they have to be thankful for, nor will it put them more at ease. All it will really do is evoke guilt, as your loved one will hear, “You’re ungrateful and that’s why you feel this way.”
What you’ve done is cause them to worry that they’re not a good person because they can’t rationalize their anxiety away with gratitude.
People with anxiety disorders already deal with far more than their fair share of guilt and shame, and adding to that guilt only leads to more anxiety.
12. It’s all in your head.
Telling someone with anxiety that their condition is all in their head does not result in anything even remotely positive.
Saying this makes them feel as if you think they are imagining their anxiety or making it up. It makes them feel crazy, and even more out of control than before.
While it’s certainly true that all thoughts and fears all originate in our heads, it does not make those feelings any less real.
13. Why can’t you be more positive?
Anxiety isn’t about negativity — for many sufferers it’s a learned response from traumatic events which have caused us to feel as if we are constantly unsafe. When you’ve experienced trauma, these feelings make it incredibly hard to see the world optimistically.
Telling someone to “look on the bright side” or “see the glass as half full” are tremendously patronizing when they’re hurting.
14. You aren’t trying hard enough to get better.
Saying this to someone who is attempting to combat their anxiety is one of the most frustrating and damaging things you can possibly say. Fighting anxiety is a constant battle that never seems to end — it’s incredibly exhausting.
Sometimes — even when they’re working towards a treatment plan and finding medications that relieve their symptoms — no matter how hard they try, they are still overcome with fear and worry.
If there’s one thing I can tell you with absolute certainty, it’s that anyone suffering from chronic anxiety is trying with every fiber of their being to be get better.
When you tell them they’re not, you may cause them to give up hope — and cause damage that can’t be undone.
15. Your anxiety isn’t an excuse to be an asshole.
Out of everything in this article, this is perhaps the statement that affects me most deeply.
A few month ago, my best friend of 17 years said many of the things you see on this list to me in series of messages. She ended our conversation — and friendship — with a link to the Thought Catalog article “Your Anxiety Isn’t an Excuse to be an Asshole”, written by Chelsea Fagan.
In it, Ms. Fagan says,
And if I were, the last thing in the world I would need is this dumb f****** self-care rhetoric that essentially tells you, “You’re a golden anxiety flower, and everyone else has to deal with you.”
Your anxiety is not an excuse to be an asshole. It’s not an excuse to not follow through on things, or be caring, or be dependable. If you break the social contract and decide to be the full asshole your anxiety-riddled self wants to be, fine. But you don’t deserve close friends, because no one deserves that. No one has to put up with your bullshit, and if you don’t actively work on making yourself a better and more rewarding person to be around, no one should wait around for you.
It was almost as if Ms. Fagan knew all the things my anxiety regularly whispers to me
When I read this article, my body reacted as it often does to anxiety inducing events. I felt the white-hot rush of adrenaline and cortisol, the dizzying nausea, the crippling guilt and shame that I try so hard to keep at bay.
It was almost as if Ms. Fagan knew all the things my anxiety regularly whispers to me — “Your friends hate you. You don’t deserve to be loved. You’re nothing but a burden. They’d all be so much happier if you were gone.”
After making it through my panic attack, the anger finally set it.
You see, Chelsea Fagan has it all wrong. In her ridiculous tirade, she bemoans how today’s society glamorizes anxiety and what she refers to as “Introvert Culture” — never mind the fact that introversion is a personality type that has nothing to do with mental illness. She tears down other people’s’ versions of self-care, yet openly talks about her own self-care routine as if it were the only way to “cure” mental illness.
She proclaims that people with anxiety disorders use their condition as an excuse to get out of personal and social responsibilities when nothing could be further from the truth. Those who avoid friends and social situations because of anxiety or panic attacks are not doing so out of “flakiness,” they’re desperately attempting to keep from falling apart in a public place. They may not be able to leave their house because their anxiety has utterly consumed them.
Would Ms. Fagan shame a friend for canceling plans because they have the flu?
Would Ms. Fagan shame a friend for canceling plans because they have the flu? No? Well mental illness isn’t any different. Anxiety can oftentimes be more debilitating than a physical illness.
Finally, she refers to people struggling with many of the things anxiety can make difficult as “assholes.” Assholes don’t constantly worry that they may have inadvertently hurt one of their friends feelings. Assholes don’t cry for days because they felt guilty for something their anxiety kept them from doing. Assholes don’t have panic attacks when they realize they’ve accidentally upset someone. Assholes don’t do everything in their power to be a better friend, family member, and partner.
This narrative is incredibly harmful to people dealing with serious anxiety issues. It’s part of the reason why anxiety disorders are so widely misunderstood, and so stigmatized.
Rhetoric like Ms. Fagan’s isn’t helping anyone — it only serves to make those with anxiety disorders even more vulnerable. It increases the horrible feelings of guilt, shame, fear and self-loathing. It damages them even more.
Though genetics, environment, and personal history may play a part, doctors still aren’t quite sure what causes anxiety. For now, medication and psychotherapy are the most common prescribed ways to manage anxiety disorders — but they aren’t a cure.
If you love someone with anxiety, please be patient with them. While they may never get 100% better, with your support, they can learn to manage their symptoms.
Most importantly, understand that, more than anything, what you think and how you feel are always on their minds. They love you. Please love them back.
If you are in distress and need help, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Liz Greene is a dog loving, makeup obsessing, anxiety ridden realist from Boise, Idaho. When she’s not writing, she enjoys eating fancy cheeses, fantasizing about what life would be like if she had an Iron Man suit, and re-watching American Dad episodes for the 100th time.