“Anxiety is normal and healthy. It keeps us safe and motivates us,” says Ty W.Lostutter, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who specializes in anxiety at University of Washington Medical Center. “It only becomes a problem when someone becomes overly anxious and it interferes with daily life.”
Having struggled with anxiety disorder myself, I always have people around trying to comfort me when my anxiety gets severe, but some of their comments end up making me feel even worse. Most people mean well but don’t know what is the right thing to say since not a lot of them know how it feels to be in that moment.
Based on my personal experience as well as articles from professionals and other patients, here are some things one should not say to someone who is suffering from anxiety:
- “Don’t Worry!”
This is usually the first thing that comes into our minds when trying to comfort someone. But even an innocent comment you might think of as comforting could come across as criticism and adds even more burden on the anxiety sufferer, who is mentally in a vulnerable space. Telling someone who is in extreme fear and worry to not worry is like telling someone with a cold to stop sneezing. The feeling of anxiety is extremely unpleasant, and if anyone with anxiety were able to let go of their worries on demand, they would do it without hesitation. But the truth is, based on my first-hand experience, anxiety is not under our control, being told not to worry might even cause more frustration or guilt for not being able to calm down.
- “There are people who are suffering more than you.”
Most of us do recognise that there are people out there struggling with the same or even worst things, but this does not take away our fear or worries. Moreover, it adds to the guilt as it seems like we are just complaining and our anxiety arouses from discontent.
- “There is no reason to panic”
Most people believe that anxiety is just making a big fuss out of something small, but for those of us with anxiety, the feeling of worrying is very real and significant. Phrases like “ Don’t panic” may only worsen our fears since not panicking is just impossible for us. It would seem like our fears and anxiety are trivial.
- “I know how you feel!”
Given that everyone’s experience and thoughts are different, even having anxiety yourself, you cannot possibly understand what it is like to have the fears of another anxiety sufferer. There is a difference between the rational but uncomfortable anxiety and stress we all experience from time to time versus the illogical fear we anxiety disorder patients experience. We often experience anxiety over things others would not, to the degree that would disrupt our daily functioning. So here’s the truth, “Nope, you don’t understand how it is like to have anxiety” Comparing your own experience with “anxiety” to someone else just isn’t helpful.
Instead, here are some things other patients and I find comforting to hear when our anxiety is spiraling:
- “Please let me know what I can do to help?”
It shows that you genuinely care and willing to offer support, at the same time you are not urging us to talk about our fears. Letting us, the anxiety sufferers know that you are always there to talk and that we are not bothering you or a burden to you is an enormously assuring thing to hear.
- “That must be really difficult for you”
“It is important not to diminish their experience,” said Todd Farchione, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University. Empathy really helps us since it shows that they acknowledge that we cannot control and it is a real battle for us.
- “I am here to listen”
Most people often want to take action to walk people out of their anxiety, but sometimes all we really want and need is a shoulder to lean on and a listener to listen to their experience and worries. A small phrase can offer reassurance which most anxiety sufferers would find very comforting.
In a nutshell, the key to connect to the anxiety sufferer is by offering support and assurance without judgment. Some might think that they’re helping by assuming they know how to help or attempting to downplay their anxiety. In reality, good intentions may end up doing more harm than good.
Editor’s note: Get accurate information about anxiety here