Five Things You Should Never Say to Someone Suffering from Anxiety
Supporting someone who is dealing with anxiety can be tricky. People who suffer from anxiety or depression are masters at hiding it. It can make them feel vulnerable, like a burden, or like there is something deeply wrong with them that makes them unlovable. It's also an invisible illness, so there's really no obvious or visible symptoms to the outside world.
Unless you've dealt with an anxiety disorder as well, you can never truly know what is going through their mind. Things that might seem minor to you could trigger a full-blown panic attack or downward spiral for someone else. Something as simple as a dinner choice could be so overwhelming it's paralyzing - what if it's the wrong choice, it's a waste of money, it causes food poisoning? It's not logical, but it's what happens.
It takes a lot of courage and trust for people to disclose when they are suffering from a mental illness. It's something they've likely been taught most of their lives to feel shame around. So the most important thing is to not add to that shame. Sometimes what seems like a helpful comment is something that's been used against them in the past to make them feel too dramatic, irrational or ashamed of who they are. Also: It should go without saying, but do not tell them to "take a pill and get over it". Yes, someone has actually said that to me.
Here are five seemingly helpful comments that you should not say to someone suffering from anxiety - especially if they're in a full blown panic attack.
"It's going to be okay."
While you may be trying to reassure them, odds are telling them all the ways it will be okay is going to make their brain come up with arguments about how it won't be. Instead of giving them space to process and realize on their own it will be ok (which they eventually will) you're forcing them to fall further and further down the rabbit hole.
"You're too hard on yourself."
It's not like being this way is a decision they've made - this is how their brain works. They are not panicking, belittling themselves, or feeling unworthy because it's fun for them. It's not a conscious choice that they are making. It's years (or lifetimes) of programming, as well as an actual illness, that makes them perceive the world in this way. Would you say the same thing to someone suffering from something you could see, like a broken leg or the flu? My guess is no.
"I’m sure it’s better than you think it is."
First off all, how the hell would you know? Second, who are you to say their perception isn't valid? By disregarding their beliefs and experiences, you're teaching them not to trust themselves. You're also telling them their experience isn't valid, and that they're being too dramatic or sensitive. That's the absolute last thing they need.
"Don't worry / calm down."
Seriously, when has that ever helped a situation? EVER? They're already doing everything they can to not worry or panic. In fact, they're probably trying so hard not to that they're now panicking about panicking. Don't add to that shame.
"I get stressed out sometimes too."
This is not stress. This is not sometimes. This is an actual illness that can impede day to day living. While we do all experience some level of anxiety in our lives, this is at a level where it impedes your ability to function. With stress you are logically able to walk yourself through it, and you can still carry out basic tasks. When anxiety or depression have their grip on you, even getting out of bed can feeling impossible.
We're all human, and we'll all make mistakes. Just do the best you can, and they'll appreciate you dearly for it. Sometimes, they just need you to sit there with them so they don't feel alone. You don't have to say or do anything, just listen. Hear them, see them, let them know their experience is valid. It might not make sense to you, but it does to them.
And the absolute best thing you can do? When they're not in crisis mode, ask how you can help them when they are. Some people have things that help them stop a panic attack, like drinking really cold water or holding a cat (there’s a workbook here to help you figure out what those things are). Let them tell you what they need instead of putting your own beliefs on them.