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What not to say to someone living with anxiety

Anxiety can affect anyone. It’s one of the most common mental health issues. Last year, over 1300 people came to Calgary Counselling Centre for anxiety – it was the top mental health issue clients received counselling for.

When someone is experiencing anxiety, they are thinking much more emotionally than rationally. They are most likely fearful or filled with worry. Anxiety is “excessive worry around everyday problems for more than six months,” according to the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Anxiety can show itself in a lot of physical ways:

  • Muscle tension
  • Sleep problems
  • Racing pulse
  • Heart palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Trembling, shaking
  • Dizziness
  • Hot flashes and sweating or chills
  • Inability to concentrate

Knowing what to say or how to properly support a friend, family member, or co-worker that is experiencing a mental health concern can be daunting. You want to help, say the right thing, and maybe push them in the direction of feeling better. But sometimes, even though we mean well, what we say may be unhelpful.

Here are 4 examples of what not to say to someone with anxiety, and some more helpful alternatives.

“Get over it”

Sometimes we may feel something is “not a big deal” or not important but for someone experiencing anxiety it may feel very different.  Expecting someone to “snap out of it” can make someone who is struggling feel like something is wrong with them – like they are responding to a situation in the wrong way. They would like nothing more than to feel normal and not worry so much. Mental health issues are not a choice, and cannot be resolved with a decision to change an attitude or perspective.

Try this instead: “I’m here”

You don’t need to have all the answers, or even say much at all. Knowing that someone will support them and listen to them can make a big difference for an anxious person. All you have to do is show up. Spend time with them. Check in with them. And you don’t always have to talk about the anxiety.

Try not to introduce anything that is unexpected. When possible, keep things structured, expected, timely, and predictable so that they can feel safe.

“I know exactly how you feel”

Even if you have experienced anxiety, what you went through and the way you felt is not going to be the same as anyone else. We can only talk about our lived experiences, not anyone else’s. Try to be compassionate of others and seek to understand some of the ways that it is affecting the person.

Try this instead: “I don’t know how you’re feeling, but I understand this must be difficult for you”

Validate the experience of someone struggling with anxiety can help normalize their experience. That’s not to say that you need to validate self-pity, but acknowledging that what they are going through is real will help them come closer to a place of acceptance.

“Calm down. Stop overreacting”

When someone is experiencing anxiety, especially some of the more severe physical symptoms like a panic attack, they are not able to be calm or think rationally. Their body and mind are in fight or flight mode, so getting to a more peaceful state is not as simple as a choice.

Try this instead: “What do you need?”

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for anxiety. Asking what someone needs is a great way to learn how to best support them. They may want you to listen to them, they may need time alone, they may need a hug – you won’t know exactly what they’re in need of unless you ask.

“You should try…”

Advice, no matter how well intentioned, can make an anxious person feel pressured. Let your loved one approach you if their seeking suggestions or strategies.

Try this instead: “How can I help?”

This is like asking “what do you need?”, but questions like these deserve to be repeated.  Every person living with anxiety will handle it uniquely, and what they need and how they would like to be supported may change day-to-day. Checking in with them on a regular basis will let them know that you care about them and you’re not going anywhere.

Supporting someone you care about that is dealing with anxiety does not have to be complicated. Be there for them with authentic positivity and make sure to listen to their needs.

If you know someone struggling with anxiety, we can help. Read more about our counselling services and see how we’re different. When you or someone you know is ready, we’re here.

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