I don’t have anxiety. I’m not an expert on it. And I’m not here to claim I know more than someone who struggles with it personally. I just want to be clear about that. However, what I do know is that you don’t have to fully experience or understand something to care about it.
And that’s where I’m coming from.
I’ve seen the effects of anxiety on the people I love. I’ve watched people I care deeply about crumble and battle against the demons in their own minds. I’ve watched loved ones cry, try to fight through life’s messiness and become even more discouraged by well-meaning words from friends and family members.
And even though I’m not an expert (in a world where it feels like everyone knows everything — am I right?!) I feel compelled to share what I think is important and a personal responsibility as someone who doesn’t struggle with anxiety.
Because I’ve been that well-meaning-but-way-off person. I’ve been the one who said things she shouldn’t have. I’ve been the helper who didn’t actually help.
And I want to change that — for myself and others who may walk in my shoes.
So, whether you think you’re saying the right thing and want to improve, or have harbored guilt about saying something that made everything worse — this is for you. Here are three things you should actually stop saying to someone with anxiety:
1. “Just breathe.”
Breathing is great, don’t get me wrong. But telling someone with anxiety to “just breathe” can be condescending, not to mention painfully obvious.
Sure, learning to regulate your breathing can be helpful. But it doesn’t always work the same for every person in every situation.
Sometimes the situation doesn’t allow for a pause of rest. Sometimes that person’s mind is going 10,000 miles an hour and the act of breathing sounds physically and mentally draining. Or sometimes the person actually can’t focus on breathing because they’re not ready to leave the emotion or the moment.
Even if you think you’re doing the right thing by saying “breathe,” make sure you understand the limitations that a person may feel and why this seemingly simple task may feel monstrous. (And why that’s OK, too).
2. “Just forget it.”
You can’t “just forget” anxiety, especially if it’s chronic or severe. You also can’t always ignore situations if they’re present and need to be addressed (think of a workplace or emergency situation). Although it may seem productive to help a person refocus their mind, it may actually be limiting the individual with anxiety’s ability to cope or work through an emotion if you tell them to “forget it.”
It’s also not easy (or sometimes not even possible) to simply forget something that’s happening in the moment. This may even contribute to more anxious feelings because pushing the moment out of their minds feels like a heavier burden to bear than just dealing with it.
3. “Just focus on something else.”
This is basically the same thing as telling someone to “forget it” and is actually counterintuitive, especially compared to what a therapist might suggest. Sometimes ignoring a problem makes it worse. And sometimes people have individual techniques or means of getting out and through their anxiety that actually don’t coincide with the methods you suggest.
Many times simply ignoring an anxious feeling doesn’t actually reduce it. It buries it under the surface which may actually create more long-term stress.
Sometimes helping that person figure out their own sense of balance is far more important than getting his/her mind on something else. While it may feel encouraging to tell someone with anxiety to “let it go,” or “think about another idea/topic,” you have to understand someone with anxiety might not benefit from that advice (no matter how good you think it is).
So here’s what you can do instead:
Instead of saying “breathe,” start breathing deeply and encourage the person to breathe along with you. Remind the person you’re there, you care and you’re ready and willing to do whatever you can to help.
You may feel powerless, but that’s OK. You’re not meant to be a savior, you can’t “save” someone from their anxious feelings and this moment isn’t about you anyway.
But you can be by their side.
And sometimes that’s all this person wants, and may be all they actually need.