“The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance. I will praise the LORD, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me. I keep my eyes always on the LORD. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.”Psalm 16:6-8
When you do not have anxiety, it is tough to understand what is going on inside the mind and body of an anxious person and what to say to help in situations of intense stress. Unfortunately, some statements are meant to provide comfort that might make the anxious person’s emotional state worse, and they will withdraw further into themselves and their stress. But how can you know what will soothe and comfort an anxious person and what will hurt them? As someone who has anxiety, here are some things that I hate to hear, along with some alternative statements that make me feel better.
If you want to read more about anxiety and are curious about whether you might have it, check out my blog post where I discuss habits that could be signs of an anxiety disorder:
- Don’t say – “Why are you worrying? It’s not that big of a deal.”
- Do say – “I understand that you care a lot about this.”
Reason: Invalidating what someone is feeling is the worst thing you can do to someone with anxiety. First, it makes them feel ashamed of their concerns, which adds guilt to the flurry of worries already swirling around the anxious person’s head. Now they are not only worried but feel ridiculous for feeling that way. Anxious people cannot control what they feel anxiety about, and they feel trapped in their bodies when inconsequential things send their emotions into a tailspin.
By using the second option, you offer validation and comfort to the anxious person about the inadequacies they are most likely feeling. They will pause and think: You are right, I do care a lot about this. And someone can see that, so perhaps my hard work and enthusiasm are paying off.
- Don’t say – “What’s the worst that could happen?”
- Do say – “Do you wanna talk about why this is bothering you?”
Reason: This line of questioning is opening the metaphorical floodgates. It is as if someone has been shot in the leg and is bleeding out, and the person next to them says, “What could make this situation any worse for you right now?”. Okay, that might be a TAD dramatic, but you get my point. It makes it seem like you do not care about what the person is worried about, as it does not fit your definition of “that bad” or the “worst.” And suppose an anxious person feels that you do not care about what they are nervous about. In that case, they will retreat further into themselves and probably will not be truthful with you about their anxieties in the future, not because they are mad at you, but because they believe they will be shamed for the unimportance of their current concerns.
By asking if the anxious person wants to talk about the situation, you show that you do not just care about how they are on the superficial surface level but are also willing to take the time and listen to what the anxious person is feeling. Which is sometimes the most comforting thing for them to see: you do not try to fix the problem but empathize with the struggles of having said problem.
- Don’t say – “Stop worrying, you are freaking me out.”
- Do say – “I get it, I am kind of nervous, too.”
Reason: People with anxiety are generally mortified by the notion of negatively affecting those around them with their worries. For this exact reason, they are not truthful about how anxious they are, pretending to be perfectly fine or that they “have jitters” or something. Instead, they will rationalize internalizing these anxieties and freak out in secret because they are so afraid of hurting the people around them or being labeled as “crazy” or “unstable” – words that people with anxiety are so used to and often dread hearing.
By sharing the fact that you have your jitters and worries about the situation, you are helping the anxious person not feel so alone. Anxiety can be very isolating, as it is hard to remember that people around you also have things you are uncomfortable and nervous about. So when you share your insecurities about the situation, you tell the anxious person, “you are not alone.”
- Don’t say – “If you are prepared, you should not be nervous.”
- Do say – “I know that you did the best and that hard work will be obvious.”
Reason: This is one of the most hurtful statements you can say to someone anxious. It tells them that their nervousness and anxiety are their internal punishment for not being prepared enough or experienced enough for the situation they dread. While it is true that normal people are most often nervous when they are unprepared or are “wingin’ it,” this is not the case for people with anxiety. You can be the most prepared person in the world, extremely knowledgeable about the subject material, and be ready to answer any questions. Still, if you have anxiety, it does not matter. You will feel unprepared and inadequate.
Using the second statement, the anxious person will feel comforted and uplifted that other people can tell that they worked their butt off and that they at least seem prepared or will be given the benefit of the doubt because of all their hard work up to this point.
- Don’t say – “Why are you acting so weird?”
- Do say – “I am here for you if you need anything.”
Reason: This one is just dismissive and hurtful, simple as that. This makes the person with anxiety feel like a bug under a microscope – odd and disturbingly amusing as it is poked and prodded. This makes it evident to the anxious person that you do not care how they feel or what they think. You are just perplexed by their behavior because you find their conduct odd or draws the wrong kind of attention to them, and by association, you.
Telling the anxious person that you are there for them, no matter what they need, is the singular best statement you can tell someone worried about. Even though the anxious person might not take you up on that offer, they are comforted just by the fact that you offered to help at all, as it reminds them that people care for them. It is so easy for people with anxiety to get trapped in loops of negative thoughts and emotions that they completely forget that others care about their wellbeing and can even forget about other people’s presence at all. Therefore, this simple statement often helps break the anxious person out of their anxiety “trance.”
I hope these five examples of bad and good statements have given you some confidence in talking to your loved ones with anxiety when they are feeling incredibly anxious. Remember, there is no perfect guide to help someone with anxiety calm down; the most important thing is to show that you care and that you are available to help with whatever will make them feel better.
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Until next time!