Living with anxiety is hard, and having people in your life who want to support you can make it better. However, when these people who are supposed to be supporting you unknowingly (or maybe knowingly) say the wrong thing, it can increase anxiety and strain relationships.
Having lived with anxiety for as long as I can remember, I’ve lost many friends who have said things to me that ultimately make me feel even worse about my anxiety. I’m not someone who is ashamed of my anxiety by any means, but hearing things like the ones below kept me in a dark place for a long time. It’s important to remember that anxiety and depression tend to appear hand in hand, and that it is really easy for people who suffer from anxiety to fall into a deep depression easily. Not every person will experience this, however, it can sometimes sneak up on people who suffer from anxiety out of nowhere.
The United States does a poor job in educating people on the issues surrounding mental health, and the rates of people who suffer from mental disorders like anxiety and depression are on the rise. As someone who has lived through both, I think that one of the most important things to remember is that words hold more meaning than we think. Over the course of my anxiety, I have had “friends” who claimed to want to help and love me for who I was, only to turn around and cause pain regarding the words they were using to either 1.) try to help, or 2.) make a situation better for themselves. While these cases are a little more isolated, I find that many people want to remain supportive, but in most cases, don’t realize that the things they are saying to help are actually more harmful than they are helpful.
While this list doesn’t cover everything, there are some things that people with anxiety hate hearing, myself included.
Let’s talk about them:
- “If you are anxious then you really shouldn’t come out with us”
NO, NO, and again, NO. If I didn’t want to come out, I wouldn’t. My anxiety is a part of me, and if I go out, I can’t just leave it at home for the night. Being told to stay home is probably one of the worst things that you can say to someone who is anxious. Sometimes we might need a minute to collect ourselves, but usually, we are really just fine.
- “Well you seem fine so it can’t be that bad.”
No. It can be bad, it just isn’t bad right now. The amount of anxiety that people feel on a minute to minute basis can vary, so just because they don’t look anxious right now, doesn’t mean that that can’t change quickly. It also doesn’t mean that they are not feeling anxious in the moment, some people are just really good at hiding their anxious feelings and other people are not. Don’t assume that you know someone well enough to know what they are feeling. You don’t. Just listen to them, and help them where you can.
- “Your anxiety is embarrassing, can you just stop?”
Sorry my anxiety is embarrassing to you, but no, I can’t “just stop it.” My anxiety is a part of me, and with that comes panic attacks and excessive worry. Is it embarrassing to burst into tears in public? Yes. Does pointing it out help? Not in the least. I understand that people who do not have anxiety can’t relate, but let me explain it clearly: Anxiety is not something to be ashamed of or embarrassed by, but pointing this out makes it hard to remember that in a state of panic.
- “Oh, I get anxious sometimes, it’s not that bad”
Getting anxious and having an anxiety disorder are extremely different. Please do not confuse them and please do not try to relate them. Anxiety is not the same as being nervous, it is so much more consuming than that. Please stop saying that you are anxious when you are nervous. It is frustrating and feels belittling to a disease that I, and millions of other people, live with every day. Even if you also suffer from an anxiety disorder, please remember that their anxiety is not your anxiety. Everyone has a different level of tolerance, and everyone feels things differently. Also, every person has different triggers. Saying this invalidates someone’s feelings of anxiety, so don’t be someone who invalidates someone else.
- “You are just making it worse for yourself, just don’t think about it.”
Literally, all I can think about is the thing that is making me anxious, and pointing it out is not going to change that. I know that I am making it worse for myself, but bringing attention to that is also only going to make it worse. Please see the tips at the bottom for how to help in this case, rather than saying this sentence.
- “Why can’t you just relax?”
I can’t relax because I have an anxiety disorder. It is not because I don’t want to relax, or because I am not wishing myself to calm down, but because my brain physically has been programmed to respond differently. In many cases, I find myself in deep anxiety when I begin to get overwhelmed. My mind starts swimming, my heart starts racing, and I feel like my whole life is unraveling. I know on a surface level that it is not, but my anxiety takes the stress that I’m experiencing and threatens to push me past my breaking point. I also probably can’t relax because you are fixating on the fact that I am not relaxed. Please don’t call attention to my anxiety, it only gives it more energy and makes things worse.
- “Just breathe, you’re overreacting”
If I could “just breathe” I would. I want to breathe, I need to breathe, but alas, it is resulting in some hyperventilation. It looks to you like I am overreacting, and maybe I am, but if what you were looking at was a physical illness (rather than a mental one) you wouldn’t make that judgement so fast. There are certainly times where a panic attack is an overreaction to a set of circumstances, however, an anxiety disorder makes it nearly impossible to look at the bigger picture and rationalize what you are going through. For some, it is a reaction to being overstimulated, and for others, there are a set of circumstances that cause them fear. In the end, “breathing it out” isn’t always an option, and I guarantee that the first thing I did when the panic attack started was try to breathe it out.
- “I know this person with anxiety and they are fine with this. Why does it bother you?”
Everyone’s anxiety is different. Something that is a trigger for me, might not be something that triggers someone else with anxiety. Don’t assume because it is the same disorder that it has the same triggers—I can assure you, it doesn’t. Also, everyone’s anxiety presents differently. Where I feel the need to throw up when having a panic attack, others withdraw, pace, cry, sweat, or hyperventilate. Any or more symptoms might come up in any combination, and some situations might bring about different symptoms than others. If someone tells you they are having a panic attack, validate their feelings and try to help. Don’t compare them to someone else, because they are their own person, with their own anxiety disorder.
- “I would have never known if you hadn’t told me!”
Personally, I think that being open about my anxiety is the best thing that I can do, because if there is an instance where I have an attack, the people around me most often know how to handle that situation and can help me if needed. Like I mentioned, my anxiety is not something I should be ashamed of or embarrassed by, so calling attention to it as something that is wrong with me is hurtful. Yes I have a mental illness, no, there is nothing wrong with me. I deal with my anxiety in my own way, and just because I have this mental illness doesn’t mean it is visible or ever present in my life. There are days where I don’t feel anxious at all, and there are other days where I’m on the edge of a panic attack.
- “You cope with it well!”
Coping is important, but assuming that I do it well or not isn’t. Having anxiety is something that is a struggle, but it is not something that completely defines me. I am a full and complete person, and while my anxiety is part of that life, it is not my whole life. “Coping” with it is something I need to do to be a complete person, but just because in that moment and most moments I do not appear to have anxiety, doesn’t mean that there are not moments where the methods I use to cope no longer work. By assuming that I am good at coping with my anxiety invalidates its existence, which for me, isn’t something that I want to do. It is a part of me, as much as any other, and treating it like something that needs to be coped with brings back those feelings of having something wrong with me, which has a resulting spiral attached to it. All of this is to say, don’t assume that anxiety is a problem that needs fixing, because that makes it very hard to cope with the feelings that are present.
If someone you know has anxiety, and you’re not sure what to do, you can check out this other article about things that might help!