11 January 2018

What NOT to say to someone with anxiety

Despite having the best intentions, the things we say often end up making people with anxiety feel even worse.

Living with anxiety can leave your loved one feeling isolated or misunderstood. While words of encouragement may help ease the anxiety, you may find yourself saying something that could have the opposite effect.

Here are a few things those suffering with anxiety would rather not hear you say:

1. 'Just relax'

Many people with anxiety will tell you just how often they hear these words from their friends or family members.

While it may be your attempt at getting your loved one to feel less anxious, telling them to relax implies that they are choosing to feel anxious. 

2. 'It’s all in your head'

While there is truth in the statement, saying these words to a person suffering with anxiety disorder may prevent them from opening up further out of fear of being perceived as irrational.

People living with anxiety are prone to catastrophising, i.e. making a mountain out of a molehill, but rather than telling them about a pattern of thinking they cannot control in that moment, empathise and listen to whatever it is that is triggering their anxiety. 

3. 'Other people are worse off'

This may be one of the worst things to say to a person living with anxiety or any other mental illness.

While many people say this in an effort to give a person struggling with a problem perspective, it often leaves a person struggling with anxiety feeling guilty for being unable to cope and ashamed of having a mental disorder.

4. 'You just need a drink'

Yes, a glass of wine now and then may help alleviate stress levels, but suggesting alcohol as a crutch to relieve anxiety may encourage the use of substances to self-medicate. 

Rather than suggesting the use of substances to ease their anxiety, suggest going for a walk, playing sport or engaging in creative activities such as writing or drawing.

5. 'Just get some medication'

Medication may seem like a quick fix, but it is better to ask your loved one if they have considered any of the various treatments available for their anxiety.

Different forms of treatment such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), behavioural therapy and different medications are some of the options available for those struggling with anxiety disorder.

6. 'But you look okay to me'

Whether it is anxiety disorder, depression or schizophrenia, mental illness has no physical manifestations. 

Saying this might make a person with anxiety feel as though they are being accused of making things up.

7. 'Stop being lazy'

Anxiety disorder may lead to lack of sleep, which can leave sufferers feeling constantly tired.

Excessive worrying can also lead a person with anxiety to feel overwhelmed by an activity others have no problem with.

Rather than being critical, offer to help them with their tasks or help them break down their responsibilities into smaller, manageable segments.

8. 'Don't be such a Debbie Downer'

This is yet another insensitive comment people with anxiety often hear.

Few people are aware that although anxiety is not a mood disorder like depression is, it can affect the emotional state of a person struggling with it. At the core of anxiety disorder is the struggle to control negative thoughts that often lead to irritability, lack of sleep, loss of appetite, headaches, nausea and persistent tension – all of which can dampen an individual's mood

If a friend or family member with chronic anxiety is feeling low, be the listening ear they need or simply be empathetic.

9. 'I'm also stressed'

This usually precedes the "other people are worse off" comment. 

While your stress is valid, be aware than those struggling with chronic anxiety are not experiencing "just a moment of distress". What may be just a momentary experience for you is something they struggle with on a constant basis. 

So, while you may be trying to demonstrate to your loved one that what they are experiencing is not unique, bear in mind that chronic anxiety is much harder to manage than plain stress.