What Not To Say to Someone With Anxiety Disorder

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When someone you love, particularly a child or partner is suffering from an anxiety disorder, it’s essential to be as informed as possible about this mental illness, and how to communicate about it in a supportive way. Even with the best intentions, it’s easy to say something that can trigger a thought spiral, or even make them close off from speaking to you in the future.

At the same time, let’s appreciate that anxiety disorders can be emotionally taxing for the people around them! Anxiety symptoms can ripple out into the family unit in unproductive ways. This condition often requires a great deal of planning, trust, open-mindedness, and flexibility – it can be a lot of pressure for people in caretaking roles. This is especially true if communication starts to feel like a minefield. The most important thing is that both you and the anxious person in your life can learn to talk through symptoms, even in the thick of it, without beginning to feel overwhelmed.

We’ve put together a quick guide of language to avoid someone experiencing anxiety symptoms – and what can help to say to someone instead.

Here goes!

1. “It’s All In Your Head”

So is everything. Reminding a person suffering from an anxiety attack that the anxious thoughts and threat they perceive isn’t congruent with reality is just not going to help – they likely know this already. In fact, hyper-focusing on the irrationality of their experience of anxiety will feed into negative self-talk and self-image cycles that do not do your loved one any good.

It makes sense that you might want to say this. Witnessing a person with anxiety becoming paralyzed over a challenge you would find very surmountable is frustrating – they’re trapped by something you can’t see. You want to pull them out of it by grounding them in reality; however, this critical phrase is going to make them even more self-conscious.

Instead: Try a Grounding Exercise

If your loved one is spiralling out of control inside their head, think about how they can get back in their body. While they’re not cures for anxiety, exercises that wake up our senses, such as mindful breathing or body scans can help us get back to reality in the moment. Calm physical contact, a cool glass of water, helping them refocus on their surroundings, or going outside can all be helpful when weathering or returning from the height of panic.

2. “I Get Anxious/Feel Stress Too”

Yes, anxiety is a part of life – even the healthiest, most emotionally regulated people on Earth will feel anxious from time to time because this emotion helpfully guides us and keeps us from dangerous risks. Anxiety works differently, rather than being a temporary passing fear it is a condition that grows and feeds into itself in ways that are uncontrollable to the person experiencing it, consuming their ability to function in jobs, work, and social life.

Of course, when most people say this, they are trying to extend empathy, but in reality, it has the opposite effect. Drawing attention to the average person’s occasional, dissipating anxious feelings only trivialises the experience of your loved one. It is likely to make them feel misunderstood -even more alone than they already do, and possibly even close off from talking to you about their feelings in the future.

Instead: Remind Them You’re There for Them

The best way you can extend your love and empathy to your anxious friend or family member is simply by letting them know you’re there and willing to listen without judgement. They may not want to open up in the moment, and may even be looking for a bit of space (which you should give to them) – but if they are willing to try to talk you through what they’re feeling, appreciate the trust that they’re putting in you.

Respect that you’ve been let into this person’s head, and try not to judge, compare, or “fix” what they share with you. There are few things more reassuring to someone with anxiety than knowing that the people in their life will listen to and validate their experience.

3. “Is This My Fault?”

Anxiety disorders are chronic mental health conditions that don’t have a lot to do with real momentary cause and effect, and often they have an impact on social interaction. Of course, it is very possible for the people close to a person who experiences anxiety to do something that triggers a spiral, but in the vast majority of cases, it is not helpful for you to bring attention to yourself or your feelings of guilt in the middle of an anxious episode. This may only make matters worse by now making the anxious person stressed about how they have made you feel. If you are genuinely concerned that you may have done something wrong, let that conversation rest until you and your friend or family member are feeling safe and grounded.

Instead: Ask if There’s Anything You Can Do

Simply asking how you can help rather than making assumptions or spiralling into your own guilty thoughts can make a world of difference when someone is having an anxiety or panic attack. Keeping the question open-ended rather than making suggestions keeps the ball in the court of the person feeling anxious, and of course, you will need to be open yourself to the possibility that they prefer to deal with this alone. However, even if they can’t think of a way for you to help in the moment, the fact that you wanted to do so will be remembered!

Once things have calmed down, it can be helpful to ask again if there’s anything that you can do to avoid similar situations or to keep them from happening again. Always keep in mind that even a loved one’s anxiety is not your responsibility, but if someone is suffering from panic attacks due to your actions, there are probably ways you can support them and avoid doing the same things. If the person with an anxiety disorder in question is a child or a dependent of yours, remember your position of control. You must know if you are triggering their feelings of anxiety.

what not to say to someone with anxiety
what not to say to someone with anxiety

4. “Anxiety Is Just a Trend”/”Other People Have It Worse”/”It’s Not Such a Big Deal”

Trivialising your loved one’s mental illness is the worst thing you can do. Making statements like these to someone with anxiety at any point only communicates that you do not believe in or empathise with what is their real, lived, experience. Being talked down to, and having your anxiety symptoms trivialised and downplayed does not make them go away. It feeds into a spiral of shame and stigma that only makes symptoms worse.

Instead: Learn About Anxiety Disorders

As in everything, education is key. If you don’t have a clear picture of what the anxious person in your life is experiencing, or why their stress manifests in the way it does, try to read up on what you can. Learning about the most common types of anxiety disorders, how they manifest, how they can be coped with, and how they can be treated will help you conceptualise what is going on here and stay supportive of the person you care about, whether it’s social anxiety or generalised anxiety, do your research.

5. “Not This Again”

Bearing witness to someone’s irrational anxiety and worrying is tough. Sometimes we really wish that things made sense and could work out the way we had planned, and feel frustrated, leading us to say the wrong thing.

Taking it personally and lashing out is one of the worst things that you can do to someone with anxiety in a vulnerable state or panic attack. If someone, controlled by worry, comes to conceptualise themselves as a burden on you, they may cut themselves off from you completely, or at least cease to lean on you for support when things get bad.

Instead: Seek Support

If dealing with your loved one’s anxiety disorder is overwhelming you or becoming difficult to cope with, keep in mind that you are not alone. Supporting an anxious child, friend, or partner is not always easy, and comes with its own stress as you try to work around triggers, weather panic attacks, keep plans open, and manage your feelings. Reach out to a trusted friend or person in your family and let them know about what has worried or frustrated you.

You may also want to speak to a mental health professional of your own or seek out a support group for loved ones of people with anxiety disorders. You don’t need to be diagnosed with a mood disorder to achieve great long-term benefits from therapy or counselling – and in this situation, it may be helpful to speak to a professional who understands both sides.

6. Stop Worrying/Calm Down

If only we could relax on command, then anxiety would be a cakewalk. Telling someone to calm down is not the way to help them cope – at best, it will be brushed off and at worst it insinuates that their symptoms are a choice.

Anxiety disorders are conditions that are diagnosed when someone cannot control their responses to stress or experience anxiety and worry to such a degree that it interferes with their ability to function. Needless to say, if it was within this person’s ability to stop worrying, they would.

Instead: Encourage Treatment

If you want to help someone with anxiety disorder cope and deal with their symptoms, and they haven’t yet reached out to a clinical psychologist, licensed psychotherapist, or other mental health services, you can help them explore their options and plan the steps to recovery. Unfortunately, treatment, therapy, and medication even for conditions as common as anxiety disorders remain stigmatised. Making the first step towards getting help can feel exhausting, frightening, or unnecessary when we have adapted to our symptoms

To put things in perspective: according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, over half of adults in the US with generalised anxiety disorder are not receiving care – numbers that trend worldwide. If you care about someone with anxiety who is still in the lion’s share of that statistic, gentle encouragement and enthusiasm about therapy can nudge them towards the road to better mental health.

Keep in mind that subtlety is crucial here – accusatory, judgmental, or condescending tones do not successfully press people with anxiety into getting support. When they decide to seek out care, it will be their own choice, but knowing that the people around them support and believe in their decision can make a difference.

Mental Health Treatment at The Wave

If you or your child is a young person living with anxiety and you are ready to make the step towards recovery, we at the Wave Clinics are here to help.

We provide specialised clinical support to young adults and teenagers living with all forms of anxiety disorders, with one of the most innovative programmes of treatment modalities available worldwide. Our clinical offerings include:

  • Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical-behavioural therapy (DBT)
  • Eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Expressive Arts Therapy
  • Family therapy
  • One-to-one therapy
  • Self-love techniques
  • Somatic therapy

However, at its core, our anxiety disorder treatment programme is a holistic one. Through our experiential programmes of challenges in safe, stunning environments, we aim to build up a sense of team spirit, accomplishment, and confidence. We work through our guests’ health from top-to-toe, developing healthy habits, introducing new forms of movement therapy, and cultivating expressive arts, all without interrupting education or vocational training. In short, we believe that young people should be able to look to the future without fear, and that’s exactly what we designed our programme to do.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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