What Not To Say To Someone With Anxiety
Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental disorder in the United States. Approximately 40 million adults in the U.S. suffer from anxiety in some form.
Despite this, anxiety often remains misunderstood, and people with good intentions often say the wrong thing when trying to help people experiencing anxiety.
If someone in your life is dealing with anxiety, and you want to be able to support them, you’re probably wondering what you should say.
However, it’s perhaps even more important to learn what you should not say to someone with anxiety.
After all, there are many ways to help someone with anxiety without saying anything at all (taking care of household tasks, for example, or simply keeping them company), whereas saying the wrong thing can make somebody feel much worse and potentially hinder their recovery.
Keep reading to find out what you should never say to someone with anxiety if you want to help them to feel better.
1. Just Stop Worrying
If you don’t have anxiety yourself, another person’s anxiety might seem confusing. Why do they keep thinking about things that make them anxious?
The thing is, if not worrying were that simple, nobody would have anxiety.
By telling a person with anxiety to ‘just stop’ worrying or ruminating, you’re essentially invalidating their experience of their mental health disorder by implying that anxiety is a choice.
Nobody would actively choose to live a life filled with anxiety if they could simply stop on command.
2. You Need to Get Over It
In the same vein, ‘get over it’ is something you should never say to someone going through a difficult time, and that includes people with anxiety.
Just like ‘stop worrying’, this phrase implies that the anxious person can just turn off their anxiety like a light switch.
This particular choice of words is also trivializing because you’re essentially saying that it’s not that big a deal, and they should just be able to move past it, which is definitely not what it feels like when you’re in the middle of a panic attack.
3. What Do You Have To Be Anxious About?
It’s certainly true that anxiety can be triggered by life circumstances. Certain situations can make a person more prone to anxious feelings or worsen existing anxiety.
For example, debt, poor living conditions, problems at work, relationship issues, and many other factors can be sources of severe anxiety.
However, not all anxiety is due to external factors. Anxiety can also be caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, meaning that it often has nothing to do with a person’s circumstances.
Additionally, you never know what someone is going through behind closed doors.
Questioning someone’s reasons for having anxiety will only cause them to feel guilty and believe that their mental health condition is not valid.
Far from encouraging them in their recovery, saying something like this will probably make the anxious person less likely to reach out to you, potentially causing them to isolate themselves to the further detriment of their mental health.
4. You’re Being Irrational
This one is closely related to our previous point.
Anxious responses are often not based on rational thinking – in fact, part of the diagnostic criteria for an anxiety disorder is that the anxiety becomes irrational as well as interfering with day-to-day functioning.
People with anxiety are typically completely aware that their anxiety responses are not proportional or rational, but that doesn’t make them any less real.
Often, people will point out that a person’s anxiety is irrational in a well-intentioned attempt to help them to gain perspective on the situation.
However, there are better ways of achieving this, such as remaining calm to foster a safe environment.
5. Everyone Gets Anxious Sometimes
‘But everyone feels anxious sometimes!’ is another thing that people who don’t have anxiety disorders say while trying to be comforting.
Most of the time, this is an attempt to empathize and make the anxious person feel less alone.
The problem with this is that while most people do feel anxious from time to time, that’s not the same as living with anxiety.
Feeling sick to your stomach before speaking in public is not the same as dealing with overwhelming worry and fear so frequently that it impacts your health (mental and physical), social life, work, and relationships.
People with anxiety are significantly more likely to experience suicidal thoughts than those without. This is why it’s important to take anxiety disorders seriously and not say things that trivialize them.
6. It’s All In Your Head
Yet another minimizing statement people without anxiety make is, ‘it’s all in your head.’ This is basically the same as telling an anxious person that they are being irrational because their problems are not ‘real’.
The thing is, we don’t use this kind of language to talk about any other health conditions. A patient with pneumonia would not be told, ‘you’ll get over it, it’s all in your lungs.’
Yes, the condition may be limited to the lungs, but that doesn’t make it any less debilitating or potentially dangerous. The same is true for anxiety.
Besides, this statement isn’t even correct. Anxiety is actually not confined to a person’s head.
Physical symptoms of anxiety include shortness of breath, racing heart rate, chest pain, muscle tension, gastrointestinal issues, numbness or pins and needles in the limbs and extremities, and uncontrollable shaking.
7. Have A Drink
Offering someone who seems stressed or anxious a drink might be a well-intentioned attempt to help them relax, but self-medicating anxiety with substances is not a good idea and can even be dangerous.
If a person with anxiety turns to alcohol to soothe their anxiety, it can quickly become an unhealthy coping mechanism that may spiral into addiction.
Many people with anxiety have noticed that their anxiety tends to feel more manageable after a couple of drinks. This is because of the gamma-aminobutyric (GABA) acid in alcohol that produces a calming effect.
However, because alcohol alters the brain’s serotonin levels, it’s common for people to feel even more anxious after the alcohol wears off.
Instead of grabbing libation consider meditation along with a diffuser in the background.
8. Why Are You Always So Negative?
Please, whatever you do, don’t make someone with anxiety feel like a burden or a ‘killjoy’ because of their mental health.
Most people with anxiety would love to always be able to see the silver lining, but anxiety can make the world seem like a dark and frightening place.
Instead of making the anxious person in your life feel guilty about their anxiety, try to lead by example in showing that person that there are good, kind people in the world who will support them through difficult times.
If you have said any of the phrases above to someone with anxiety, don’t worry – you probably had good intentions, and you’re not alone in having said the wrong thing.
Now that you know what not to say to people with anxiety, you can be a better mental health ally and offer genuine support for anxiety without judgment.
Author: Michelle Landeros, LMFT
Michelle Landeros is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist (LMFT). She is passionate about helping individuals, couples and families thrive.
Last updated: February 28, 2024