We all experience anxiety from time to time. It’s a normal part of life, a function of the body’s involuntary fight-or-flight response system. Fear of failure before a big test or nervousness ahead of a public speaking engagement, for example, are natural reactions to stress. Short-term anxiety can even be beneficial in certain situations, perhaps motivating us to perform better or prepare more for specific events.
But incomprehensible dread that persists for at least six months is generally considered chronic anxiety that could benefit from evaluation and treatment. Symptoms vary, but generally are characterized by irrational fear or worry that interferes with day-to-day living. Anxiety most often stems from a pattern of predicting bad outcomes for situations in the near and distant future.
Other mental or physical illnesses – including substance abuse, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder – often can co-occur with anxiety, masking symptoms or making them worse. Sometimes these other problems must be treated first.
Anxiety is now the most common mental illness in our country. It affects some 40 million American adults – 18 percent of the population – in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Three of the most common disorders include: general anxiety, panic attacks, and social phobias.
Anxiety can be debilitating, destructive, and, believe it or not, physically painful. It takes a variety of forms, from apprehension and worry to more intense emotions like being scared, sick to your stomach, or even feeling like you’re going to die.
Being there for a friend or family member who is experiencing chronic anxiety can help them. However, we don’t want to inadvertently make things worse. Here are a few examples of what NOT to say to someone experiencing anxiety.
1. “Calm down.”
This can actually intensify a panic attack. Doctors and patients often compare anxiety to quicksand – the more you struggle to get out of it, the deeper in you sink. Think about it – if people could control their anxiety, it wouldn’t be such a problem. Offer to do an activity with them. Going for a walk, meditating, and practicing yoga are great ways to help inspire peace rather than demanding it.
2. “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”
This old adage might seem appropriate for someone stuck in a rut. But upbeat advice probably won’t loosen the grip of chronic anxiety. It’s all about perspective, and what you consider minor could feel insurmountable to them. Express your belief that they can get better. Acknowledging their pain could help them work through it.
3. “Suck it up.”
This can come across as insensitive and put someone with anxiety on the defensive. A cavalier comment can trigger feelings of guilt for being unable to snap out of it. They might feel the need to prove their anxiety is real. Watching a friend or family member struggle can be difficult and sometimes frustrating. But choose empathy over “tough love” in this case. Say something like, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” This conveys a sense of understanding. Allowing anxiety to exist is more effective than trying to banish it, both for you and for your loved one.
4. “I’m stressed out, too.”
Everyday stress is not the same as a chronic anxiety disorder. Comparing your problems to theirs can exacerbate an already tough situation. First, you don’t want to trivialize what they’re going through. Second, commiserating can lead to anxiety contagion. Refocus the narrative on a positive track, or try not addressing your friend’s anxiety unless they bring it up.
5. “Have a drink, forget your troubles.”
Alcohol can provide short-term relief and “calm the nerves” for a few hours. But it’s also a gateway to addiction, and by reinforcing destructive patterns and poor choices, you’re not helping. Instead of offering to take them out for a drink, ask if they’d like to watch a movie or cook something healthy to eat, or both. Worries drowned in booze don’t get resolved any faster. In fact, the opposite is true.
You may have the best intentions, but words are powerful. And if your loved one is suffering from anxiety, they’re likely feeling sensitive, vulnerable, and overwhelmed. Keep that in mind. Give them space to express their feelings without judgment. Now that you know what NOT to say, also try not saying anything at all. Being there to listen is vital to helping anyone with a problem.
As new research into the nature of anxiety emerges, we’re learning more about how we can help those afflicted by it and better ways to deal with everyday stress. There are tons of resources on the web and even smartphone apps geared to help.
TTHI Counseling Center offers individual and group counseling for these common disorders. You don’t have to deal with anxiety alone. Call us or schedule an appointment below! We’re here to help.
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