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8 Things Not to Say to Someone Who’s Struggling with Anxiety

Anxiety

“Sometimes just being there is enough.” ~Unknown

It felt like I couldn’t breathe. Like someone was holding me by the neck, against a wall, and the floor might drop beneath us at any moment.

I’m describing a panic attack, but this has actually happened to me before—being held by the neck against a wall, that is, not the other part. Growing up I experienced many moments like that, moments when I felt unsafe, physically and emotionally.

There were countless experiences that reinforced to me, over the years, that I couldn’t let my guard down, because at any moment I could be hurt.

So I learned to be constantly anxious, eternally on guard, ever ready for a threat. I learned to be tightly wound, my fight-or-flight response permanently triggered.

And I learned to see minor threats as major problems, because that’s another thing I learned as a kid: Sometimes seemingly small things could make other people snap.

Unsurprisingly, I grew into an adult who snapped over small things all the time.

Got bleach on my interview outfit? No one will ever hire me now!

She doesn’t want to be my friend? Why doesn’t anyone love me?

Found a suspicious lump? I’m going to die!

Okay, so that last one isn’t actually a “small thing,” but the point is I was constantly scared. Life was a string of lions to tame, and I lived in a land without chairs.

I believe my early experiences, being mistreated in varied environments, led to my years of depression and anxiety. For you or your loved one, there may be other causes.

Some people are genetically predisposed to anxiety, some struggle because of stressful circumstances, and for some, physical conditions play a role.

But this isn’t a post about what causes anxiety. This is a post about what not to say when someone’s panicking.

Anxiety can completely overwhelm your mind and body, and we often exacerbate our pain by being cruel to ourselves in our head.

“Get it together!” we scream at ourselves. “What’s wrong with you? Why are you such a mess?”

But none of these thoughts are helpful. Though the people who love us are generally not as cruel, they sometimes say less than helpful things, as well, solely because they don’t know any better.

Even as someone who has experienced anxiety, I have said some of the things below to others because it feels powerless to see someone struggling. And when you feel powerless, it’s hard to think straight.

All you know is that you want to fix it for them. You want to have answers. But sometimes when we’re in fix-it mode, despite our best intentions, we inadvertently add fuel to the fire.

So, as someone who’s been on both sides of the coin, I’d like to share some phrases to avoid when someone is dealing with anxiety, and offer a little insight into what actually helps.

Things Not to Say to Someone Who’s Struggling with Anxiety

1. What you’re stressing about won’t even matter in a year.

In many cases, this is true. If someone’s worrying about a minor car accident, it’s entirely likely what they’re stressing about won’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. But this isn’t a universally true statement.

A minor accident could lead to major car trouble, which could lead to missing work, which could lead to lost pay, which could lead to getting evicted. And that could very well matter in a year. Is this chain of events likely? No, but it’s still possible.

It’s not reassuring to tell someone the worst-case scenario won’t happen because sometimes, it does. But more importantly, in that moment when someone is in the midst of anxiety, it feels catastrophic, and you can’t rationalize those feelings away—at least not immediately.

When someone is panicking, they don’t need logic; they need validation. They need validation that yes, life is uncertain and “bad” things do happen, and validation that it’s okay to feel scared.

They also need a reminder that in this moment, they are safe. And that’s all they need to think about right now: breathing and grounding themselves in this moment in time.

2. Life’s too short to worry. 

All this does is create more anxiety, because in addition to whatever that person was initially stressing about, they now have to worry that they’re missing out on life because of an emotional response that feels beyond their control.

Yes, life is short. And we all naturally want to make the most of it. But you wouldn’t tell a diabetic “Life is too short to have too much sugar in your blood.” Sure, you’d encourage them to make healthy food choices, but you’d realize this phrasing would vastly oversimplify the effort required from them to manage their condition and maintain healthy habits.

The same is true of anxiety. Anyone who’s struggled with it understands there are far better ways to live, and this knowledge pains them. What they may not know is how to help themselves.

3. Calm down.

“Calm down” is the goal, not the action step. It’s what we all want to do when we’re panicking. It’s the shore in the distance, and it can feel miles away as we gasp for air in the undertow of emotion and struggle to stay afloat.

If you know any good methods that help you calm yourself—deep breathing exercises, for example—by all means, share them. But it’s probably best not to get into much detail in the moment when someone is panicking.

Imagine someone hanging off a cliff, about to fall into a pit full of tigers. That’s what anxiety can feel like.

If you were to stand at the edge and scream, “COME TO YOGA WITH ME TOMORROW! DID YOU KNOW THAT YOGA CAN HELP YOU…” that person would likely be too consumed by their terror to hear you your convincing argument.

What they need to hear in that moment is “Take my hand!” And the same is true of anxiety. Hold their hand. Help them breathe. Help them come back into the moment. Then, when they feel safe, that’s a good time to tell them what’s helped you.

That’s another important thing to remember: We all want to hear what’s helped other people deal, not what someone who’s never experienced our struggles has read about. Share your experience, not your expertise. None of us need a guru; we need friends who aren’t afraid to be vulnerable.

4. It’s no big deal. 

This comes back to the first point: In that moment, it feels like a big deal. A very big deal. It feels like the biggest, scariest, worst thing that could happen, and you can’t turn that fear off like a switch.

When someone says, “It’s not a big deal,” the anxious mind translates this as “You’re overreacting—which is further proof that you’re broken.”

Instead, try, “I know it’s hard. And scary. But you’re not alone. I’m here to help you get through this.”

It’s amazing how much it helps when someone reinforces that it’s okay to be scared—it’s human, even—but we don’t have to face it alone.

5. It’s all in your head. 

Yes, thoughts and fears all originate in our head, but that doesn’t make our feelings any less real. The anxious mind translates “It’s all in your head” as “Your head is defective,” because knowing that thoughts fuel anxiety doesn’t make it any easier to stop thinking anxious thoughts.

When we’re thinking anxious thoughts, what we need is a reminder that they often arise naturally—for all of us. We don’t need to worry about changing them. We just need to practice accepting them when they arise and disengaging from them.

So try this instead: “I can understand why you’re thinking those thoughts. I’d probably think some of the same things if I were in your shoes. If you want, you can tell me all your anxious thoughts. They’re trying to protect you in their own way, so maybe they just need to be heard and then they’ll quiet a bit.”

6. Let it go.

I have, over the years, written many posts with advice on letting go. I believe it’s healthy to strive to let go of anger, resentment, fears, the past, and anything else that compromises our ability to be happy and loving in the present.

I think, though, letting go is something we may need to do repeatedly. It’s a practice, not a one-time decision, and certainly not something we’re well equipped to do in a moment when we’re gripped by fear.

Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote, “It’s not a matter of letting go—you would if you could. Instead of ‘Let it go’ we should probably say ‘Let it be’.”

That’s what we need in the moment when we’re panicking: We need to give those feelings permission to exist. We need to give ourselves permissions to be a human being experiencing those feelings. And we need to know the people around us love us enough to accept us as we are—even if it might make them feel more comfortable if we were better able to just “let it go.”

7. Things could be so much worse.

Yes, things could always be worse, we all know this. Like many statements on this list, this phrase does little other than evoke guilt. And for the anxious mind, guilt can lead to more anxiety.

Now, on top of their initial fears, they’re worrying that they’re not a good person because they can’t rationalize their anxiety away with gratitude.

I’m not suggesting that it never helps to put things in perspective, but coming from someone else, this almost always sounds condescending. Condescension leads most of us to feel inferior, and it’s even worse when we’re already feeling ashamed because of our struggle, as many of us do.

8. Be positive. 

Anxiety isn’t just about negativity. For many of us, like me, it’s a learned response from a traumatic past in which we felt persistently unsafe. You can train your brain to be more optimistic, and in doing so, minimize anxious thoughts. But this involves far more time, effort, and support than the phrase “be positive” conveys.

Also, “be positive” suggests that “positive” is something one can become—permanently—which ignores the reality that lows are inevitable in life. No one is positive all the time, and often the people who seem to be are actually being passive-aggressive.

Phrases like “Look on the bright side” and “See the glass as half full” can seem incredibly patronizing when you’re hurting. They minimize just how hard it can be to see the world optimistically, especially when you’ve experienced trauma.

So instead, show them what it looks like to be positive. Be loving and open and calm and accepting and supportive and present. This probably won’t heal them of their struggle or banish their anxiety in the moment when they’re panicking, but it’s amazing how you can affect someone for the better by being a healthy mirror.

After reading this list, you might think I’m suggesting there is no way to heal from anxiety; we just need to help people accept it and get through it. But that’s not actually my point.

There are tools out there to help people. You can find some of them here. (I personally recommend therapy, yoga, and meditation, as these three tools combined have helped me learn to better regulate my emotions.)

My point is that even when someone is making the efforts to help themselves, it takes time, they may still struggle, and in those moments, they simply need love, acceptance, and, support.

We all do—even you, loved one who tries your best and has only the best intentions.

If you’ve said some of these things in the past, know that we recognize you’re imperfect, just like us, but we still appreciate all that you do. We also appreciate that you read articles like this to better understand and support us.

The world can be a scary place, but knowing that people, like you, care enough to help us makes it feel a whole lot safer.

About Lori Deschene

Lori Deschene is the founder of Tiny Buddha and Recreate Your Life Story, an online course that helps you let go of the past and live a life you love. Her latest bookTiny Buddha's Gratitude Journal, which includes 15 coloring pages, is now available for purchase. For daily wisdom, follow Tiny Buddha on Twitter, Facebook & Instagram..

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  • These are really helpful ideas. It’s great to want to make the anxiety go away for someone, but these reminders help me understand what it’s like for someone with anxiety, and how I can truly help them. Thanks!

  • moh

    thx

  • Diane Elayne Dees

    I have a specialty in the treatment of anxiety disorders; for some reason, many clinicians are not trained in this, so I would add: If you enter psychotherapy to treat anxiety, make sure your clinician is comfortable with anxiety intervention. I utilize education (it’s helpful to learn how your brain chemistry is betraying you), a number of physical interventions (diaphragmatic breathing, tai chi breathing, progressive muscle relaxation), and different cognitive strategies, depending on the nature of the anxiety. Combining yoga or tai chi and/or meditation I do recommend–also massage. Anxiety can often be reduced significantly in a short time.

  • krzkatie

    OMG, Lori, once again, you have maybe saved my day. I’ve been prone more and more to having anxiety/panic attacks, and started having one at work on Monday. I’ve tried to focus on the feeling and work thru it that way, maybe it takes a lot of practice? Anyway, thank you for the link to the different, free sites for anxiety – I find that breathing helps the best. Thank you, it IS true that we are not alone. And while this sounds weird, it’s reassuring. Please keep up the wonderful things you are doing, lady.
    xoxo

  • I really enjoyed this post! I struggled with anxiety the majority of my life and until 5 years ago I didn’t even realize that’s what it was. I just thought I didn’t fit in or was less than. Compassion and understanding is truly the best way to be there for someone struggling with anxiety. Minimizing their feelings, only makes them feel more insecure…at least that was my experience. Thanks so much for this!

  • lv2terp

    Thank you Lori!!! I appreciated this post with great tips how to be more supportive with someone that has heightened anxiety. t is a challenge being a person that doesn’t struggle with anxiety to communicate properly, but always the best interest at heart, so thank you for your words of kindness in your summary! 🙂

  • PJ

    If you haven’t I’d recommend looking at the emotion regulation and distress tolerance aspects of DBT. A lot of what you said is incorporated in some way, but it gives the client a lot of freedom to decide what works for them and prepare ahead.

    I’m not a clinician (disclaimer) but I’ve studied DBT for more than a decade, to help with my own anxiety and depression.

  • Diane Elayne Dees

    Yes, dbt was synthesized from interventions that already existed, and the regulation and distress tolerance aspects are very useful for a number of problems. If it’s just an anxiety disorder (not mixed with depression, bpd, etc.), I find it faster to take the body relaxation route; sometimes cognitive interventions aren’t even needed.

  • Cynthia_M_V

    Great post, Lori. I have been on both sides of anxiety myself and I know that everything you said is true.
    Right now it is my partner struggling with a crippling anxiety and panic that is triggered by certain events and is now really taking a toll on our relationship. Having been there myself I have been supportive, patient, understanding, empathetic and kind – as he will be the first to say.
    But part of his issue is dealing with the negative voice of his emotionally abusive past compulsively telling him to rid himself of me – his partner in the first healthy relationship he’s ever known. He wants to “fix himself” by himself and doesn’t want me to see him so “low” and “weak” – though I have seen him like this in at least 2 prior episodes. He vacillates between wanting to have our life/love, which makes him so happy, with punishing himself for having the happiness he was conditioned to believe he does not deserve. Although he really likes his therapist, he cannot even take her advice to heart.(Which is to utilize the awesome support system that he has – her and me – while working on this in his alone time.) Within hours after seeing her, it’s as if he never had the appointment. His tendency has always been to run from emotionally difficult situations and/or isolate.
    So, how can I provide the loving support you describe in your post to someone who is rejecting my support?
    The negative voice keeps telling him that I am better off without him and that I should leave or he should set me free. If I leave him, even for a time, I would be validating that fallacy. So I stay, because I refuse to do anything to confirm that distorted thinking. But because I stay, I am now feeling angry and resentful at this pattern, and for the first time, want to say several of the unhelpful things in this post.
    If you or anyone else has any suggestions I’d greatly appreciate them.

  • Thank you! My husband and my three teens try to help me and they have all said these 8 things sometime or another. It is even harder to have my family help me cope because my husband and 2 of my teens are also Autistic, so they don’t understand my anxiety and we were military for 20+ years so I never had family or friends around and my husband was deployed a lot. I’m so glad I have articles like this to help myself understand that it’s not just me!

  • You’re most welcome!

  • I’m glad you found this helpful, Marie!

  • You’re most welcome! =)

  • You’re most welcome. It’s definitely not just you! I can only imagine how tough it’s been for you to not have your friends and family around as a support network. I’m glad this helped a little. =)

  • So true! And insecurity leads to more anxiety. That was my experience, as well. You’re most welcome. =)

  • I’ve never suffered from anxiety so I read this with great interest as it’s hard to be supportive in the right ways when you’re not sure how. Thanks for your honesty, as always, Lori and for the links to further resources. I’ve shared this on my Project Me Facebook page to reach even more people who need it. x

  • Yes, it can be so hard when you’ve never experienced it. Thank you for taking the time to write, and also for sharing the link on your page!

  • Hi Cynthia,

    I’m so sorry about what your partner’s going through, and also for how hard this has been for you. I can only imagine how painful it’s been to see him suffering, try to help, but then be shut out.

    This is a tough pill to swallow, I know, but it’s quite possible you are doing all you can, and the rest is up to him. All you can do is keep offering your support, keep reinforcing that you love all of him, even the part that is struggling with the past. There’s no way to make him believe he deserves your love. He just needs to get there on his own, and the healing process can take time. Some people take years to have breakthroughs when healing from trauma. (I actually had a similar experience to his, and I was in therapy for around a decade. I’m not saying it will take that long for him, I’m just pointing out that it’s not a slow process!)

    The fact that you mentioned leaving tells me this has crossed your mind. If there comes a time when your relationship doesn’t feel healthy for you anymore, please know you won’t need to carry the burden of validating the fallacy. If you decided leaving was best for you, he may eventually realize why: His fears/beliefs informed his behavior, and ultimately ended up creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. That, too, could be a crucial part of his healing journey, because he could quite possibly recognize the impact of his beliefs and inability to accept support: that he drove someone he loved, who loved him, away.

    Of course, I’m not suggesting that you leave him. I’m just pointing out that all you can do is be there for him as best you can, and know it’s not wrong to do what’s best for you. Whether you stay and keep offering your support, or leave and allow him space to take responsibility for his role in the breakdown of your relationship, you will, in some way, be supporting his healing.

    Does that make sense?

    Lori

  • It does take a lot of practice! I used to get angry with myself for even feeling anxiety in the first place – like perhaps I should be completely past it, given all the work I’ve done on myself. But everyone experiences anxiety every now and then, even if it’s not crippling. So all we can do is apply what we’ve learned and be patient with ourselves.

    Incidentally, meditation helps a great deal, even just five or ten minutes in the morning. I almost never experience anxiety on days when I’ve meditated. These days, if I feel anxious, I can usually track it to some lapse in my self-care or something related to my choices: either I haven’t meditated, haven’t gotten enough sleep, drank caffeine, or had too much sugar, for example. I don’t know if this is the same for everyone, as I’m a highly sensitive person, and strongly affected by choices like these!

    You’re most welcome. =)

  • CityGirl

    Great article. My bouts with anxiety began when I got sick last year with odd and worrisome symptoms that turned out to be a silent form of acid reflux. Couple that with my hormones going wacky as I near menopause and my emotions were all over the place. The panic attacks and bouts of depression were tough to deal with. I faced almost all of those comments you mentioned and the worst example was from a doctor, he had the nerve to say my case was not that bad because he had another patient who was worse! Fortunately my family and a different, and very kind doctor, were helpful. I also found it helpful to read Dr. Andrew Weil’s book “Spontaneous Happiness.” I like that he says we shouldn’t expect to be happy all the time, but we can adjust our emotional setpoint to the happier end of the spectrum through practicing certain techniques. While I still have issues from time to time I now have the skills to deal with it and most of the time I feel good.

  • John Ward

    Lori, one of the most useful things you do here I respond to people’s comments with heartfelt advice and honesty. It shows you really care.

  • Wow, what a strange thing to say to a patient! I’ve never read that book before, but now it’s on my list of books to check out. That’s such an important idea to understand. It’s unreasonable to expect we’ll be happy or positive all the time, but I think we can shift the ratio of happy to unhappy moments. I’m glad to hear you’re doing better now. =)

  • Thank you so much for your comment, John! I’ve missed a lot of comments on older posts because it can be a bit much to keep up with all of them, but I do try as best as I can to help. I appreciate that you noticed and took the time to write. =)

  • dyslexictrio

    I did not read the author’s name before reading this post. At the end, I was pleasantly surprised to see your name. While it does not speak to me directly, there is a lot of transitional content here that does apply to my current experience. This article spoke to me greatly in a time where I am struggling to find somebody-ANYBODY-to understand and, more important; give a damn! Your suggestions are very useful (to me, at least) to educate people on how they may be of help. I am grateful for your contribution. I hope it sees a wide audience.

  • I’m glad this was helpful to you! You’re most welcome. =)

  • Roseann McCabe

    omg, i so love this post!

  • I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  • revzef

    This addresses number 3: Anxiety or not, no matter what, NEVER EVER tell someone to calm down. It is the number one most disrespectful thing you can say to a person. Often it will just piss them off, adding anger to the boiling mix. Don’t say it. Just don’t. Ever.
    Instead, say nothing, and go get the person a glass of water.