5 Things You Should Never Say to Your Friend With Anxiety

Everyone gets anxious from time to time, but some people are more prone to anxiety attacks than others. For those collegiettes who have been medically diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, some situations can be difficult and painful to navigate, and the last thing a girl needs when she is having an attack is someone telling her that she needs to “chill” or “stop acting crazy.” Obviously, the people who say these things don’t usually mean any harm by them, but that’s why we need to spread the word about the things you should never say to someone with anxiety.

What not to say

1. “Calm down.”

Telling someone to “chill” or “calm down” is rude in any situation, but hearing those words can be horrible for someone with anxiety. It shows “an insensitivity to the person who is experiencing it, because if they could calm down, they sure as heck would already be doing it,” says Jennifer Shannon, a marriage and family therapist and the co-founder of the Santa Rosa Center for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.

Even if the person you’re talking to doesn’t have anxiety, but especially if they do, telling them to calm down is just counterproductive and downright mean. “Most people don't get that those who suffer from anxiety disorders usually know that they are worrying over nothing and telling us to ‘calm down’ isn't going to help anything,” says Helmi Henkin, a sophomore at the University of Alabama. “In fact, it makes it worse most of the time because then we start stressing out that we are annoying you with our worries.” In that moment, your focus should be on the anxious person’s wellbeing and not on your slight discomfort.

Related: 5 Things You Should Know About Having Anxiety

2. “Get over it.”

In the same way that telling your friend to “calm down” when she’s having anxiety won’t benefit her, telling her to “get over it” is equally useless. Nobody wants to have an anxiety attack, and your friend needs your support, not your dismissal. “There is also a difference between reassuring us that we do not have anything to worry about and making us feel like we are somehow in the wrong for overthinking something,” Helmi says.

There is nothing your friend can do about her thoughts and feelings, and in that moment, all you need to know is they are very real and scary for her. “When you have an anxiety disorder, you are constantly experiencing racing, often negative thoughts and feelings of dread. If your friend has an anxiety disorder, please be there for them and make them feel safe and comfortable talking to you, and remember to dissuade their fears rather than belittle their problems.”

Another problem with this phrase is the assumption that once the attack is over, that’s that and both you and your friend can move on. “Panic attacks take a lot out of me and I would never want someone to tell me that I should quickly get over it and get back to my day like normal,” says Shailagh Lannon, a sophomore at Gustavus Adolphus College. “It just doesn't work that way.” In fact, it can take hours to fully recover from an attack.

3. “You’re acting crazy.”

The difference between telling someone to calm down and calling them weird or crazy is super important to understand. “Using crazy with a negative connotation is frowned upon in general,” Helmi says. And with good reason: anxiety disorders are mental health issues and the term “crazy” is insulting and derogatory to those who suffer from anxiety.

If you’re feeling slightly ill-at-ease around someone who is experiencing anxiety, just imagine how that person must feel. “As someone who has dealt with anxiety issues, I think the worst thing is when other people don't understand and are inconsiderate about your feelings,” says Ellie*, a junior at Temple University. “I know I'm being weird and you telling me that does not help at all, it actually makes me feel a lot more anxious.” Which is completely relatable, regardless of whether you have an anxiety disorder or not.

Besides, anxiety is much more normal and common than you know. “I think it is really important for people to know how common anxiety is,” Shannon says. “18 percent of [adults] will experience an anxiety disorder at some point. It is very much linked to genetics, so it is not a sign of weakness to have an anxiety disorder, but something that is inherited and a part of the person’s wiring.” All the more reason to be sensitive at all times.

4. “Cheer up!”

See above. Nobody wants to feel anxious and scared, and telling someone to cheer up will never magically alter their mood—in fact, it will probably have the reverse effect. “I have been in public places with friends and felt like I needed to leave,” Ellie says. “The worst responses I have gotten during these instances are when my own friends respond with things like, ‘Come on, cheer up!’ or ‘You’re being weird.” In fact, there are very few things you should say in these circumstances, and “cheer up” is definitely not one of them.

Related: How to Deal with Stress & Anxiety in Your 20s

5. “Come on, it will be fun!”

One of the worst things you can do to provoke or worsen your friend’s attack is to pressure her to interact in a social setting, even if it’s just a shopping trip. “When I am having a panic attack, I just need to be alone in a quiet place; it's a nightmare for me to deal with a panic attack in a public place,” Shailagh says. “One time I had plans with my friends and, right before I left, I had a panic attack. Luckily my friends were understanding when I told them I was going to stay in for the night—I would have hated it if they had pressured me to come hang out once I had calmed down.” Remember to give your friend all the time she needs to recover.

“I find it can be very helpful, especially if the person sometimes needs to cancel plans because of anxiety, to make sure they know you'll be there for them even if that happens,” says Alaina Leary, a first-year graduate student at Emerson College, who has friends with anxiety. “They need to know that your friendship or caring is unconditional and that you'll still love them if they're too anxious to do something or to go out for a night.”

What to do instead

Unfortunately, there are not a lot of things you can say to help your friend who is having an anxiety attack. Shannon suggests “staying with the person, staying calm yourself while the other person panics.”

Alternatively, “you might suggest they try to slow their breathing down, with long slow breaths, but they may be unable to do this,” Shannon adds. “You can try to reassure them that this is a panic attack, like all things it will pass. You’re here for them until it does pass. Walking around can also help sometimes.”

What you say or do really depends on the person and the situation. “A lot of the time all we really need is an ‘It's okay,’ ‘It will be fine,’ or a ‘Your feelings are valid but you do not have to fret over this too much,’” Helmi says. Basically, always make sure your friend knows that you understand how she feels, while reassuring her that everything is going to be okay.

Ultimately, you’ll have to gauge what your friend needs when the time comes and try your best to be supportive. There’s not a lot that you can say, but there are some things that you can never say.

*Name has been changed.