When I was plagued by choronic anxiety, I woke up every day with a weight on my chest. I had trouble breathing, broke into cold sweats constantly, and would burst into tears with no warning. To make it through the day was truly a challenge.
Many people suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and, fortunately, the problem is slowly being destigmatized. Being open about our struggles is the best way to start healing them. If you have a loved one who’s dealing with anxiety, your support and acceptance can make a huge difference in their recovery.
That said, it can be easy to derail someone’s progress or alienate a friend if you aren’t aware of and sensitive to their struggles. With that in mind, here are seven common statements you might think are helpful, but really aren’t — plus what to say instead.
1. Don’t say: “You have a lot to be grateful for.”
Anxiety is attack on self — fear manifested into projected outcomes. Most people with anxiety have spent an enormous amount of time focusing on gratitude. When you say “you should be grateful,”the anxious person hears, “I am not doing enough to be happier. I’m not grateful for enough in my life.”
People who suffer from anxiety are already dealing with guilt and shame. This statement implies that you think they aren’t doing enough. If there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that anyone suffering from chronic anxiety is trying with every fiber of their body to be happier.
Instead, try: “I appreciate you.”
When I was in the clutches of anxiety, my mother told me, “We are so happy you live close by, and we appreciate you.” Hearing those words reminded me that I was enough as I was, and that I was valued. Appreciation is stronger than gratitude, and everyone needs to know they are appreciated.
2. Don’t say, “You should meditate.”
This goes on the list of things that every anxiety sufferer has tried, and probably does regularly. Just because something works for you, don’t assume it will be a magic bullet for someone else.
Instead, ask: “What brings you peace?”
Meditation is one path to peace. It's not one-size-fits-all, and the goal is to find peace, however you can. Telling an anxious person what they should do is never going to make as much of a difference as much as helping them
3. Don’t say, “Everything will be okay.”
This is not helpful to someone who is suffering from anxiety, because anxiety projects illusions.
Instead, try: “I am here for you. I will support you.”
Anxiety is an incredibly isolating experience, so reaching out to say, “I am here to help you and be a friend” makes a world of difference for sufferers.
4. Don’t say, “Just be happy.”
This implies that the disease this person is dealing with is actually just a matter of willpower and personal focus. That’s disheartening and condescending.
Instead ask, “What can I do to help you feel happier?”
This gives the power back to the person feeling stuck, and communicates to them that you’re on their team. It’s incredibly reassuring to feel that someone is there for you, helping you move forward.
5. Don’t say, “It’s all in your head.”
Yes, it’s a mental issue, but this statement suggests that you just need to handle your irrational thoughts. It totally trivializes feelings that are crippling.
Instead, try: “Let’s go have some fun.”
The less you get stuck in your head, the easier it will be to feel more joy in the moment. Walk in a park, visit a bookstore together, or take a yoga class. Engaging in activities together helps keep your mind present, pushing anxiety out of the prime spot.
6. Don’t say, “What do you have to be anxious about?”
This is an incredibly common thing for anxious people to hear, but it’s also terribly condescending. It suggests that you think the person doesn’t deserve to feel anxious based on the limit information we have about their life.
Instead, try: “How can I help you feel less stressed?”
You have to assume you don’t know what’s really going on with someone. We almost never know the deepest struggles people are facing. Rather than operate based on the surface knowledge you have, offer to lend a hand. Show you’re there and willing to lighten their burden.
7. Don’t say, “There are people with much bigger problems.”
Anxious people generally know this, and already feel guilty about the anxiety they are suffering for that very reason. Being reminded of it actually makes them feel worse.
Instead, try: “I’m really sorry to hear that. Do you want to talk?”
Are you sensing a theme? What anxious people don’t need is prescriptive advice that most of us aren’t actually qualified to give. The most helpful thing anyone can do is be encouraging, offer support, and withhold judgment.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older — that’s 18% of the population.
If you or someone you know is suffering from chronic anxiety seek professional help and support from loved ones.
If you want to go deeper on this topic and heal anxious tendencies, check out my book Adventures for Your Soul.