People mean well. They really do. But sometimes the most well intentioned comment can leave us reeling. Anxiety can be all-encompassing. It affects our thoughts, our emotions, and our behavior. Anxiety is different for everyone. But someone with an anxiety disorder feels overwhelming intense emotions at times that interfere with their daily living. While you may not always be able to see someone else’s anxiety, it is likely due to the fact that over the years, they have learned to adapt, avoid, escape or manipulate their environment in an attempt to avert detection. Because the last thing someone with an anxiety disorder wants is to have the people they’re with feel uncomfortable, bored, or uneasy around them.
Sure, there are plenty of things that are unhelpful to say to someone with an anxiety disorder, but the following are among the most annoying:
1. “Just calm down” – People really hate this one. Not just people with anxiety, but people in general. Think about anytime your emotions are out of control, someone telling you to “just calm down...everything’s going to be fine” does absolutely nothing to de-escalate your emotions. It just makes you angry and more frustrated. You are in no position to listen to reason and logic when you’re so overwhelmed. And think, if you could calm yourself down on command, you would.
2. “You’re missing out on life” – People with anxiety are well aware that they are missing out on life by not attending parties, events, carnivals, family reunions, trips, concerts, sporting events etc…They even dread going to work or school. It’s something that takes over their life. It’s not like they don’t want to participate in life. It’s just that it takes an enormous effort, starting with the anticipatory anxiety of just imagining what the event will be like, and listing the innumerable “what if’s” in their head. They feel sick to their stomach because they always imagine the absolute worst possible outcome in any given situation.
3. “You’re over analyzing things” – Of course they’re over analyzing things. That is the nature of the disorder. It is self perpetuating. It takes on a life of its own. Anxiety sufferers know that their issues exist solely in their own mind. They are hypervigilant about anything and everything that could possibly be worrisome or dangerous. They know it’s all in their head, but it feels so real and so scary and makes them feel utterly helpless. They know that the thoughts and fears are irrational, but the uncertainty is always present. And then the ceaseless cycle of “Why can’t I control this?” begins, only causing shame, guilt, and embarrassment.
4. “Everyone is NOT judging you” – Okay, but it sure seems like they are. Anxiety sufferers feel as if people are talking about them, staring at them, laughing at them, noticing that they are sweating, visibly trembling, acting weird. They feel like people can see their anxiety, their awkwardness, their fear of rejection. Every emotion is felt 10x stronger. They don’t make new friends – they worry about the impression they make on people.. Or when they do make friends they are afraid people don’t actually like them and are just trying to be nice. They think everyone notices their nervous habits or the complete chaos going on in their body. They feel vulnerable, panicked, weak, incompetent, burdensome.
5. “Get a grip. Just stop worrying about it” – People with anxiety would love nothing more than to stop worrying about it. One of the results of worrying too much is feeling physically and mentally exhausted. This disorder is complex and distorts thoughts, feelings, and responses to daily life. Some people find that they are confused, distracted, and unable to focus or think straight. Some have trouble following a thread of a conversation and often feel disoriented or lost. Some even experience dissociation where nothing feels real to them - their environment doesn’t seem real or perhaps they themselves don’t feel real.
Anxiety can be debilitating and crippling for many people because of its relentless, spiraling cycle. Due to the fight or flight response being continually activated, it is a daily struggle for many people. Anxiety often leads to depression because people just want to feel normal and wonder why other people can carry out their lives without fear or panic at every turn. It’s exhausting to have to find ways to constantly mask the symptoms without people knowing – avoiding and dodging people, places and situations where their anxiety could be triggered.
While we don’t always know what to say to someone who is suffering from an anxiety disorder, sometimes the best approach is to simply say to them, “How can I best support you right now?”