Panic Life

Fighting Stigma and Living with an Anxiety Disorder

"Calm Down." What to Say to Your Anxious Friend

People often tell you to "calm down" when you're anxious. It's not helpful.

"Calm down." I can't count the number of times someone has said those two words to me. As a human being dealing with chronic anxiety, those words impact me deeply, but not in a positive way. When someone says "calm down" to me as I am panicking I think:

  • I'm being dismissed
  • I can't calm down because I'm anxious
  • I feel silenced
  • My feelings are strong and I need to express them

When a person tells me to calm down, I've noticed it's because my emotions are overwhelming to them. Perhaps I am speaking quickly and they are having trouble hearing me. Maybe they want to help but don't know how, so their reflex response is to shout out:

"Calm down!"

Perhaps this person feels out of control and, ironically, they are the one that needs to calm down. 

The point is, telling someone who lives with chronic anxiety to calm down doesn't work. 

Here are some things you could do to help your friend who is experiencing panic instead:

  • Listen - Listening is underrated. As human beings we want to have our voices heard. We want someone to understand our feelings.
  • Ask - Ask if there is anything that you can do to help. Maybe the person will say "no," but you are offering your help in a non-confrontational way. 
  • Be there - Just be there. Sometimes there is literally nothing you can do, but your physical prescence is appreciated, whether the person can articulate it or not. 
  • Breathe- Breathe and remind the person experiencing panic that they can breathe too. Sometimes we forget that simple fact.

Instead of using the words "calm down" try those techniques. You might find that you are helping more than you knew you could. 

Sarah Fader is a mental illness advocate and mother of two living with
panic disorder in New York City.

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