Even if you have the best intentions, helping someone with anxiety can be touchy. Here are four things you’ll want to avoid saying or doing if you want to be supportive and reassuring:
- “It’s no big deal.”
- “There isn’t anything to worry about.”
- “You’re just making it all up in your head.”
- “Just calm down.”
If anyone has ever said these phrases to you when you were worried about something, you know how unhelpful—and even infuriating!—they can be.
Anxiety is such a universal phenomenon that you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t been a nervous wreck about something at least once in their life. In fact, about one-third of people have had an anxiety disorder at some point. This can include anxiety about a certain situation, such as having a fear of spiders, or generalized anxiety about a lot of things. Some types of anxiety disorders are well-known, like social anxiety disorder—it’s easy to imagine someone who feels inherently awkward at parties or is deathly afraid of making a speech to a crowd. You may even recognize yourself as that person!
But there are other anxiety-related disorders that many people struggle to relate to. Why is grandpa stubbornly refusing to throw out the crossword puzzles he finished months ago, and letting them pile up as fire hazards in the hallway? Why does my roommate jump-scare so easily, even at the slightest unexpected noise? How come my neighbor needs to check whether she turned the hair straightener off at least three times whenever she leaves the house?
I’m not going to do a deep-dive into the mysterious world and origin of anxiety disorders, but I will focus on how you, as a friend, loved one, or even a stranger, can help someone who is actively feeling the burn of anxiety.
You may think talking to someone with anxiety is intuitive, but think again. Let’s take a look at the most common things people say and do (with all the best intentions), why they’re not helpful, and what you can do instead.
1. Don't say, “Just calm down.”
Variations of this crowd favorite include “Relax!” and “Just breathe.”
If I could, don’t you think I already would have?
Let’s say your roommate is looking for a job, and you find him spiraling one evening, freaking out about how he'll be unemployed forever. It feels natural to tell him to “Just relax.” Someone we care about—or maybe just someone we have to interact with—seems to be in a crisis. We want to help them cool down. Maybe the crisis doesn’t seem like that big of a deal to us. Doesn't it make sense to remind someone in distress to relax?
The problem is that when people are anxious, it’s hard to relax. They're experiencing activation of their sympathetic nervous system, also known as the fight-or-flight response. This is a real and urgent biological process that automatically raises their heart rate and adrenaline levels, stiffens their muscles, and puts their senses on high alert.
The fight-or-flight mechanism is designed to override "reasonable" thinking. If you’re swimming in the ocean and you spot a shark in the distance, the last thing you’re thinking about is reason. Eventually, the alarm system subsides. But when a person is in the middle of a fight-or-flight response, you can't just tell them to cool it. It’s almost impossible to do, plus it invalidates their experience. The phrase can feel condescending and, especially if it’s the first thing you say, it shows that you are not interested in understanding what’s going on for them.
What to Say Instead
Instead of saying “just calm down,” try asking an open-ended question like, “What are you thinking about?” If they’ve already told you what the anxiety is about, you can ask follow-up questions like, “What type of job are you hoping to find?" "Where have you looked?" "What do you think are your best options?” Asking questions shows that you’re invested. It also helps to introduce some problem-solving structure and gives your friend a chance to slow down, think about their answers, and walk through the facts.
2. Don’t say, “There isn’t anything to worry about.”
“It’s not a big deal.” “It’s going to be okay.” “You’re going to laugh when you look back on this.” "Don't worry! Your problem isn't so bad."
None of these versions —of "There’s got nothing to worry about"—are helpful. The anxious person does think their problem is a big one and does feel bad about it. Besides, how do you know everything's going to be okay?
For example, maybe your 16-year-old niece is distraught because she got into a fight with her boyfriend and swears the relationship is ruined. If she’s not too cut-up about it, it’s perfectly fine to reassure her that it’s normal to have disagreements in romantic relationships. She might be open to hearing that even if it is over, there will be plenty of other opportunities for love.
But if she's already prone to anxiety, or she seems particularly crushed, this type of reassurance won't get through. She may well say, “But you don’t understand! I love him, he’s the one!” Even if you disagree, think back to a time when something felt like the be-all-and-end-all for you. Were you easily persuaded otherwise?
What to Say Instead
Instead of dismissing how worried and upset she is, show empathy.
You don’t need to agree with a specific prediction. (“He's going to break up with me and I’ll never find love again.”) You can show that you hear her by matching her tone and mood. (“Ugh, that sucks! It's nerve-wracking not knowing where your relationship is headed.”)
And again, open-ended questions are key. Ask, “What was the fight about? How did you two leave things last time you talked?” It’s important to remember that you’re not doing this to grill her, or even offer advice—you’re looking to provide a sympathetic, willing ear and an opportunity for her to feel like her voice is being heard.
3. Don't say, "I've got problems, too."
Sometimes, sharing and commiserating can be validating. If someone seems only mildly anxious or can laugh about their situation, sharing your similar feelings can seem like a great way to ease the tension.
But be careful that you're not accidentally overriding or dismissing significant anxiety. Saying something like, "I'm worried about my big work presentation, too" might seem like a good way to show support and empathize with a friend facing a similar experience. But it's possible that your friend has significant anxiety about public speaking that has been seriously holding them back.
What to Do Instead
Take a back seat for now, and use your good-listener skills to hear them out. Save your worries for another occasion, or vent to a different friend. Emotional support should definitely go both ways in a relationship, but there's a wise time and place to share your own troubles. (Hint: It’s not in the middle of the other person’s panic attack.)
4. Don't enable an anxiety-maintaining behavior.
Naturally, we want to help others in distress but getting them out of the anxiety-provoking situation ASAP.
Maybe your friend feels awkward and terrified of mingling at parties, so you keep giving him alcohol to help him “take the edge off.” Maybe you agree to a miserable 14-hour drive for a joint family visit because your sister is afraid of flying.
I’ve certainly seen parents protectively snatch up their 5-year-old when they come across a dog in the park, saying that their child is afraid of dogs. You want to take away fear from someone you love. In this case, however, the parent’s actions are counter-productive, because parental accommodation actually increases the child’s phobia over time.
Here’s why: Anxiety feeds off of avoidance.
For someone with a dog phobia, every time they panic and head in the opposite direction of the dog, their phobia gets cemented a little deeper. There are two reasons for this. First, their avoidance—and your affirmation of their avoidance—teaches them that dogs are indeed dangerous and should always be avoided.
Think of it from the perspective of the 5-year-old. If your parent, the person you trust the most, reacts so protectively every time there's a dog around, then, of course, it’s clear to you that dogs are dangerous. Second, the immediate relief someone feels when they get to avoid a scary situation is so sweet, so sublime, that it reinforces the fight-or-flight reaction the body had just created. It’s like giving candy to a toddler in mid-tantrum. Why would the toddler do anything other than have a tantrum the next time they’re in the same situation—tantrums mean you get candy!
So what should you do instead of enabling avoidance? Be gentle and firm. For example:
“You’ve got this! I’ll introduce you to a few people and you can take it from there. I love talking to you, and so will they.”
“We can totally do this flight. I’ll be there holding your hand if you get scared. It’ll get a lot easier after we take off. Think of how proud you’ll be of yourself!”
“Honey, look it’s a doggie! It’s okay to be scared, but I bet he’s really nice. Let’s ask his owner if it's okay to pet him.”
Remember that it’s possible to be emotionally supportive and encourage healthy behaviors. The secret formula is to always respond to a friend’s anxiety with empathy and open-ended questions, and when it comes down to actually doing (or avoiding), holding them gently and firmly accountable. And remember, now’s not the time to compare their anxiety to your own. You may have to take one for the team right now and save your needs for another day. You’ve got this.
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