Anxiety disorders are a group of mental disorders that include generalized anxiety disorder, phobias, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Feelings of fear and worry can range from mild to severe.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that anxiety disorders affect 264 million people around the world and the number is growing every year.
Anxiety is a difficult disorder and many people struggle to know the right words to say when a friend or loved one is struggling. Although most comments are meant to help, they may make matters even worse.
If you’re wondering what to say (and what NOT to say) to a person with an anxiety disorder, here are a few suggestions:
What NOT to say: Just calm down!
Why: This comment is likely to make your friend feel angry, frustrated, guilty, and even more anxious. He would like nothing more than to calm down, but anxiety is a mental disorder and simply “getting over it” is impossible.
Say this Instead: You’re important to me. I’ll do my best to listen and understand.
What NOT to say: It’s all in your head.
Why: Your friend knows that her fear and anxiety are irrational, but that doesn’t make the anxiety any less real. Your friend isn’t imagining her anxiety. Comments like this show a lack of understanding on your part.
Say this Instead: I know this is a difficult time for you. Don’t give up!
What NOT to say: Relax!
Why: The inability to relax is one of the common characteristics of anxiety disorder. Suggesting that a person with an anxiety disorder should relax is like telling a person with an allergy to stop sneezing. If your friend could relax, he would.
Say this Instead: I’m sorry you’re going through this. I’m here for you.
What NOT to say: You’re thinking too much.
Why: Racing thoughts go along with an anxiety disorder. Your friend is constantly on high alert and telling him to push thoughts out of his head can intensify the anxiety.
Say this Instead: I’m here to listen. Can I give you a hug?
What NOT to say: Stop stressing!
Why: Anxiety and stress aren’t the same thing, although the symptoms may be similar. The difference is that symptoms of anxiety last much longer than a stress response, which is usually short-lived.
Say this Instead: This must be really difficult for you. Can you tell me more?
What NOT to say: Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Why: You may think your friend’s anxiety is inconsequential, but to your friend, there is no such thing as “small stuff.” This comment, while meant to be helpful, will make your friend feel like her fears and worry aren’t important.
Say this Instead: Your worries aren’t silly. It’s okay.
What NOT to say: Have a drink; it will calm your nerves.
Why: Self-medicating anxiety with alcohol is a very bad idea. For many people, it results in addiction and the need for alcohol treatment or rehab. Substance abuse isn’t an answer for anxiety disorder.
Say this Instead: Encourage your friend to seek counseling if his anxiety is out of control. If he is already self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, encourage him to seek addiction treatment as soon as possible.
Treatment for Anxiety is Highly Effective
If you have a problem with anxiety or if you’re concerned that a loved one is showing symptoms, take it seriously. Anxiety is a difficult disorder, but it’s treatable. Anti-anxiety medications can be helpful, especially when used in conjunction with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or other forms of counseling.
If your anxiety is severe, professional help can help you cope with your worry and fears. If you use drugs or alcohol to feel better, consider checking into drug and alcohol treatment or rehab.