Today, anxiety disorder is the number one most common mental illness in the United States. 1 in 5 people suffer from it, which chalks up to a whopping 40 million Americans. 40 million people, in just one country. Not surprisingly, western civilization tends to suffer from anxiety more than our Eastern Hemisphere friends, probably due to the USA’s competitive, success crazed society. Chances are that one of your close friends, family members, or loved ones probably suffers from anxiety, and you may not even know it.
Though millions of people have different variations of anxiety disorders, it’s not something you can see. You might witness symptoms or behaviors that are presented as a result of the disorder, but you’ll never really be able to see what’s going on inside that person’s head. You can’t see the turmoil and distress that an anxious person has to endure while they struggle with their own thoughts. It’s not tangible – you can’t grab it, or hold it, or throw it away in a trashcan. It’s not a light bulb you can switch off or unscrew. It’s not a splinter that you can pull out with a pair of tweezers. You can’t put a bandage on it. It’s just there, under the surface. The only person who can truly get to it is the person who suffers from it. It’s a constant internal battle.
As one of the 40 million Americans who suffer from anxiety, I can tell you that my anxiety doesn’t just affect me; it affects the people in my life. It affects my relationships and interactions with them. It affects how much time I spend with them, how focused I am, how personable I am.
The relationship between a person who suffers from anxiety and a person who doesn’t can sometimes be a complicated one. It can be difficult for a non-anxious person to understand the inner mechanics of an anxious mind. An anxiety-ridden mind is complex. In many situations, you might not know how to react to a person who is experiencing an anxiety or panic attack. That’s not your fault. We know you really just want to help. But sometimes, you do more harm than good, even if it’s unintentional. Here are a few things that you should never, ever say to an anxious person. Though they may seem like simple, helpful phrases to you, they usually only end up making us more frustrated during an already challenging situation.
1. "Calm down."
If we could be calm, we would be calm. But we CAN’T. There’s no magical switch to turn off anxiety, so telling an anxious person to calm down just frustrates them even more. Just remember this simple rule of life: Don’t ever tell your angry girlfriend (or an anxious person) to calm down. It won’t go well.
What you should do: Remind them to breathe
When someone is anxious, and especially if they’re in the midst of a panic attack, they often hyperventilate. Breathing slowly and mindfully is one of the most effective ways to slow a person’s nervous system and calm them down. Chances are, if they have sought professional help for their anxiety, they’ve probably been taught a breathing technique or two. But sometimes we just need a little reminder to practice those exercises. Doing so is a much more constructive approach than simply telling the person to calm down.
2. "Just be positive."
DO NOT tell me to “just be positive”, or any other anxious person for that matter. It brings on a world of frustration. What might be easy for you isn’t necessarily easy for everyone else. Yes, anxious people combat a slew of negative thoughts, so it seems obvious to just point our brain in the opposite direction, right? Wrong. Positive affirmations do help in the fight against anxiety, but when you tell an anxious person to “be positive” you make it sound so simple, and it belittles what they're struggling with. The reality is that it's NOT easy. Taking back control of racing thoughts is a difficult, exhausting task.
What you should say: "You are okay".
No matter how many times we try to be positive ourselves, it doesn’t always work. But hearing a positive affirmation from someone else helps to solidify the thought. Make sure you have their attention, and say it with confidence: “You’re okay.” If you’re confident, it will help them be confident.
3. "There's nothing to worry about."
Alright, deep down, we know that there’s probably nothing to worry about. But we really can’t help obsessing over it. A lot of the time, anxiety isn’t rational. Therefore, we really can’t rationally explain to you why we are so worried about x, y, or z. And we definitely can’t just stop worrying. People who don’t suffer from anxiety sometimes just won’t get it. But saying “There’s nothing to worry about” makes us feel a little crazy.
Personally, sometimes the only way to talk me down is to rationally deconstruct my irrational fears. For example, I went to the beach a while ago with some friends. For those of you from New Hampshire, you all know how freezing the water can be. I was the only one out of my group to go in the water. I was only in for about a minute, but it was so cold that by the time I came out, my legs were numb. Cue my irrational fear that maybe I was going to get hypothermia from spending a mere minute in those frigid waters. A friend of mine, however, calmly and rationally talked me out of my own head. He pointed to all the other people in the water “You see those people? They’ve been in the water longer than you, and they don’t have hypothermia.” He told me that I had to be in frigid water for x amount of time to get hypothermia, and that my body had to drop to a certain temperature. Or something like that. But it worked. My anxiety melted away, and I went back to enjoying our beach day.
What you should say: "Everything is going to be fine"
Saying “everything is going to be okay” might be a similar idea to “There’s nothing to worry about,” but the difference is in the delivery of the message. Reassuring the person that they are safe will help them relax. Sometimes we just need to be told that everything is going to work out. Sometimes, the anxiety or panic is based around absolutely nothing. In which case, it is sometimes okay to say ‘There’s nothing to worry about” as long as you pair it with the positive affirmation that everything is going to be okay. But if there is a specific situation that the person is worrying about, try addressing that issue directly, and assure them that it is highly unlikely. And even if the worst does happen – everything is still going to be okay. Just remember: if you’re confident, it’ll help us be confident too.