1) “Just be Happy”
Although this simple phrase may seem harmless or even empowering, it isn’t helpful to say this to someone who is struggling to overcome anxiety. If people were able to “just be happy,” it’s safe to say that everyone would be content- with themselves, in life, and in relationships. After all, who would choose to live in a state of fear or worry if there was a better alternative? I have yet to encounter an individual who enjoys feeling uneasy, unhappy, or anxious.
Before you try to inspire those who are living with anxiety with a line like this, remember that individuals who deal with prolonged or chronic anxiety can’t just flip a switch and “be happy.” This is because in people who suffer from anxiety disorders, the brain circuity that controls the threat response for the body gets activated. At the core of this circuit is the brain’s amygdala, a small almond-like structure that codes some signals as alarming and then communicates with other parts of the brain to put the body on high alert.
The amygdala is remarkable. It is responsible for survival instincts, memory, and the perception of emotions. It helps to store memories of events and emotions so that an individual may be able to recognize similar events in the future. For instance, if you have ever suffered a bee sting, then the amygdalae may help in processing that event; and therefore increase your fear or alertness around bees.
When our senses detect a change in our surroundings that could be potentially dangerous, the amygdala is responsible for preparing the body for defense or escape (also known as, fight or flight). In individuals who experience prolonged anxiety, the amygdala may get triggered even when “real danger” is not present.
2) “You are in Control of your Emotions”
If only it were that simple. While we can work to decrease negative thought patterns or cognitive distortions or attend therapy to try to minimize painful emotions, it is utterly impossible to completely shift or alter our emotional responses.
If we were capable of changing the way in which our bodies respond to anxiety, then the 40 million adults in America who suffer would miraculously be able to overcome anxiety in the absence of treatment. Further, there’s a reason why the U.S. spends more than 42 billion dollars a year (almost one-third of the country’s mental health bill) on anxiety- it’s an illness that is tough to manage without the proper care and attention (The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 60(7), July 1999).
Because anxiety disorders develop from a complex set of risk factors, including a genetic predisposition, brain chemistry, personality, and life circumstances, controlling our emotions is just not probable. Seeking help from a mental health professional is more of an effective antidote in combating anxiety.
3) “It’s Not that Bad, I’ve had Worries in the Past too”
If you’ve said this phrase to someone who suffers from anxiety, chances are you had the best of intentions or you were just trying to relate. Worrying, however, is vastly different from experiencing anxiety. Worrying can lead to stress and is often unsettling, but prolonged anxiety can be debilitating. Individuals with anxiety disorders often seek relief for symptoms that mimic physical illnesses (e.g. difficulty breathing, heart palpitations, chest pain, trembling, vertigo, headaches, Gastrointestinal (GI) issues, or difficultly swallowing).
Think twice before you say “it’s not that bad” to someone who is anxious. This statement can be perceived as dismissive. It can result in your loved one feeling unsafe or misunderstood and it may send them into full-blown protection mode. Withdrawing or shutting-down is a common behavior in people who feel criticized or minimized. This is troubling because individuals who live with anxiety often benefit from psychotherapy. Thus, if a person does not receive the desired and much needed compassionate response from you, chances are, they will not seek the professional support that they may need and ultimately deserve.
Try saying this when you’re stuck: I don’t know exactly what you are experiencing, but it sounds painful. I can’t imagine what you are going through. Please let me know if there is something that you need to feel supported.
4) “Calm Down”
Helping someone to slow-down while they are in the midst of a panic attack can be a difficult, uncomfortable, and scary task (for all parties involved). When we are nervous or overwhelmed we usually try to find a solution or we look for something to say that might be calming or grounding. Telling a person to “calm down,” however, is not a phrase that I would endorse in this situation.
Try slowing your speech down and focus on listening to your loved one. Anxiety can breed more anxiety. If you are feeling helpless or anxious, as a result of trying to help someone who is struggling, try to speak slowly. Take deep breaths and converse in a soft and gentle manner. Physical touch can also be helpful (e.g. hand holding, hugging, etc.).
5) “Get it Together” or “Suck it Up”
If you have ever uttered these words, please make a mental note to never say them again (to anyone- for any reason). These phrases can be extremely damaging. By saying “suck it up” or “get it together” you are essentially telling someone that they are: a) overreacting; b) their behavior or emotional response is unacceptable or unwarranted; c) they are “too much” for you to handle; d) they are being “dramatic” or “crazy;” e) they are weak and should learn to cope in better ways; or f) all of the above.
We don’t need to cut someone down during their time of need. Dealing with anxiety is hard enough. No one needs to believe that they are “abnormal” or “weak” in the midst of feeling scared. Please leave statements like this at the door. I doubt that you would ever want your loved one to feel attacked, afraid, or alone.
6) “There are People out There who are Going Through Much More”
Just because a person suffers from anxiety doesn’t mean that they doubt that others have issues and struggles of their own. It’s safe to say, that cognitively, we are all aware of the unique challenges and problems that others face. Knowing that people are in pain around the world (in the midst of dealing with anxiety), is far from helpful. You may think you are putting one’s pain into perspective, but in fact, you are dismissing their feelings and discounting their struggle. Bottom line: avoid comparisons. Life can be hard.
7) “What is Wrong with You?”
This statement falls into the “harmful and not helpful” category. Individuals who battle anxiety know that they are struggling- they don’t need you to point out that something is going on with them.
If a loved one appears to be having a tough time, do your best to remain patient and emotionally engaged. Ask them if there is something that you can do to comfort them. Please do not give advice (unless they ask for help) and avoid sending the message that they are “abnormal” or “out of control” just because they are struggling to find relief.
The good news is:
1) Anxiety disorders are treatable. Therapy and medication are several recommended approaches that can be effective in treating someone who lives with chronic anxiety.
2) YOU can help someone who suffers from this condition just by changing your perspective, educating yourself, and/or altering your initial knee-jerk response.
So how do you best support a loved one who suffers from anxiety?
- Remain patient, calm, and collected.
- Slow down while speaking to someone who is in the midst of a panic attack. If you become escalated or reactive, you will most likely send your loved one into a downward spiral.
- Do your best to be empathetic and understanding.
- Check-in with your loved one so that you can better understand how they would like to be supported. Some individuals may want a hug, while others may need a safe place to share.
- Avoid statements that are critical in nature.
- Strive to be a solid and safe place for them to land.
- Don’t make their anxiety about you and your needs.
- Put your judgement on a shelf and dig deep to find that empathy and compassion. I know it’s there.