4 Things Not to Say to Someone With an Anxiety Disorder

These statements can do more harm than good.

Posted Oct 01, 2015

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The experience of anxiety is a normal - and even helpful part of life. As humans we developed the ability to feel anxious because it was evolutionarily advantageous. If a buffalo was about to attack us, we would feel a surge of anxiety and our bodies would go into "fight or flight" mode. If we remained calm in the face of danger, we would not have survived as a species for very long. Anxiety can also motivate us to complete important tasks and may serve as an indicator that we need to pay attention to something in our lives.

However, when someone's anxiety significantly impacts their functioning in multiple areas of their life, they may be struggling with an anxiety disorder. Per a group of psychologists from the Bio Behavioral Institute, "These three factors-duration, intensity, and frequency-distinguish normal, adaptive anxiety from abnormal, pathological anxiety." Unfortunately, anxiety disorders are often misunderstood and it can be difficult to know what to say to someone who is suffering. The following are four things that you should never say to someone who is struggling with an anxiety disorder.

1. You need to just calm down.
Telling someone with an anxiety disorder to "calm down," is akin to telling someone with allergies to "stop sneezing." Mental illnesses are not a choice. No one would choose to feel paralyzing levels of anxiety, and if the person was able to control their anxiety, they would. Telling someone to "calm down" is invalidating to the person who is struggling and insinuates that they are deciding to have their anxiety disorder. Instead, try asking the person what you can do to support them. It could be beneficial to ask the person this question when they are relaxed, rather than waiting until they are in a state of heightened anxiety. 

2. What you're worrying about is really not a big deal.
Whatever the person is worrying about is clearly important to them. It is not up to you to determine what should constitute a "big deal" to the person. Again, this goes back to the misperception that anxiety disorders are a choice. Some people who are struggling might know rationally that their fears are unlikely to come to fruition. However, part of having an anxiety disorder is that it can be difficult to stop buying into the anxious thoughts that your mind is telling you. Kady Morrison, a writer who has an anxiety disorder, exemplified this point when she stated, "This is one of the most frustrating things about having an anxiety disorder: knowing as you're freaking out that there's no reason to be freaked out, but lacking the ability to shut the emotion down." Rather then expressing opinions about their fears or source of anxiety, listen to their concerns in a compassionate and empathetic manner.

3. I know how you feel.
This statement is only helpful if you have a personal experience of struggling with an anxiety disorder. An anxiety disorder can completely consume a person's life and may become a daily struggle. Just because you have the experience of feeling anxious before a test, does not mean that you can understand what someone struggling with an anxiety disorder is going through. However, even though you may never fully understand what they are experiencing, you can still be a crucial source of support. Try to educate yourself on anxiety disorders so that you can learn more about what they are experiencing. It could also be helpful to tell them that you can't understand what it must be like to have an anxiety disorder, but you care about them and are here if they need support.

4. You're right, that could happen.
Try to avoid saying anything that will feed into their fears. For instance, if you have a friend with a phobia of flying, do not engage them with an account of the terrible plane crash that you heard about on the news. This one might seem like a no-brainer, but unfortunately I have seen this kind of thing occur. Instead, try to validate their feelings. Validating a person's feelings does not mean that you are agreeing with them. For instance, rather than saying, "You're right if you go to that party people might judge you," a more validating response would be, "It sounds like the thought of going to the party is making you feel anxious. You are worried that people might judge you. It seems like this is really upsetting you." 

By avoiding the use of stigmatizing statements and approaching those struggling with compassion, you can help to eradicate some of the shame that is associated with having a mental health diagnosis. Studies show that shame and fear of judgment is one reason that people with mental illnesses often avoid seeking treatment. This is why providing support and compassion to someone who is struggling with an anxiety disorder is so crucial. Heather Rayne, a blogger, summed it up best when she stated,

"Living with anxiety and/or depression can feel like constantly trying to climb out of a deep, muddy hole with an armful of sandbags. Everything seems so much more difficult - even getting out of bed in the morning can be a monumental feat. The simplest tasks can be a dreaded challenge. Nobody wants to feel this way. And they are not doing this TO anyone. It is happening TO them and sadly, others are caught in the crossfire. But eventually the bullets will stop flying, the smoke will clear and blissful, fulfilling lives and relationships could appear just beyond the horizon. Together, it can be reached."