What Not to Say to People with Anxiety

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorder in the United States. It’s entirely possible you have it but haven’t realized it. Even though it’s so common, many people don’t understand how to talk to someone who does have it. They don’t know what it is and can be dismissive of the struggle those who have it face.

I’m not here to judge anyone. There are a lot of situations where I would probably put my foot in my mouth and say the wrong thing out of ignorance. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as we’re willing to learn from our mistakes and apologize if we say something dumb. 

So, if you know someone with any kind of mental disorder or anxiety, here’s a list of some things you should NOT say to them.

“Calm down.”

I cannot think of a single time in my life where someone has told me to calm down, and it didn’t immediately wind me up even more and make me want to slap them. Telling anyone to calm down is never a good idea. It doesn’t work and is pretty dismissive of why they’re upset in the first place.

If someone is having an anxious episode, just telling them to calm down solves nothing and lets them know you care more about them being quiet than actually helping them fix the problem.

“Just get over it.”

Another common phrase that dismisses a problem because the speaker doesn’t want to deal with someone else’s feelings. It doesn’t help. It also ignores how much the person is bothered by whatever the problem is. We can all get fixated on something that feels minor to others. Just because you don’t think something is a big deal doesn’t mean they feel the same.

Instead of ignoring what they’re feeling, you can try gently talking them through it and slowly pull apart why they’re fixating on something. Have them talk about what they normally feel, what triggered them, and if there is something that can help comfort them. 

“Have you tried ______?”

There are a lot of things that can fill in the blank here, and none of them are the right thing to say. Unless you are a licensed doctor, you do not have the qualifications to give mental health advice. So don’t go around asking people with a mental health disorder if they’ve tried exercising or yoga or whatever other activity you have no basis for recommending. 

This phrase, of course, only applies in the context of trying to give advice as a magical cure for anxiety. If you’re just genuinely asking someone if they’ve done something or tried something, it’s perfectly fine. In fact, it might be hard to get to know new people if you can’t ask them about the things they’ve done. Context is the key.

“It’s not a big deal.”

Maybe it isn’t a big deal to you, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a big deal to them. Just like telling someone to “get over it,” saying this ignores what the person is feeling. Mental disorders are usually subjective and will present in different ways. You don’t know how they’re feeling, so you don’t know what is and is not a big deal.

You may have noticed by now that I’ve used the word “dismissive” a lot. That’s because the problem with the things on this list is that they are all dismissive.  

“It’s all in your head.”

In the literal sense, this statement is correct. Chemicals cause anxiety in your brain, which is, in fact, in your head. If you tell someone something is all in their head, though, you’re just letting them know you don’t believe what they’re experiencing is real. Odds are they probably know that already and saying it out loud is not helpful.

Statements like this are invalidating, and whoever you’re talking to is probably quietly deciding you aren’t someone they can talk to about how they’re feeling. Making a decision like that just adds another problem for them to worry about and makes everything that much worse. 

“Someone else has it worse.” 

Don’t play the pain Olympics. Just don’t. Comparing how someone else is suffering doesn’t mean anyone else is suffering any less. We all have tolerances and loads we can handle. One person having more to deal with doesn’t make someone else’s load lighter.

We can always be appreciative of our own lives in comparison to how hard others have it, but if we’re having a bad day, someone else throwing it in your face doesn’t make the day feel any better.  

According to experts, one of the best things you can do is to help give control back to someone experiencing high periods of anxiety. Let them talk through their thoughts and feelings and let them know you’re just there to listen and help them without any judgment. (We’ve got a guide on how to use “I” statements that might be helpful!)

If you’re looking for more help on how to be there for someone with anxiety, check out this article from Psychology Today. It lays out several steps and helpful suggestions written by a psychologist. They really know what they’re talking about and can help you understand what to do.

Do you have other suggestions for what NOT to say?

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