It can be hard to know what to say to someone with mental health issues, but anyone struggling will be able to tell you what not to say. We’ve probably all heard unhelpful advice and it can be frustrating. Here’s my list of what not to say to someone with anxiety…
Everybody worries from time to time. It’s normal and it’s part of our instinctive defence mechanisms. It’s our body’s way of keeping us safe. But for someone with an anxiety disorder, it’s much more than that.
When I’m anxious, I’m literally worrying all the time. About everything. In fact, I’m worrying so much that I’m catastrophizing – thinking of the worst possible thing that could go wrong in every situation.
The things I worry about sound really stupid when I talk about them, but at the time they’re very real for me. I rarely voice my worries, but when I do I find it really hard to accept any answer or solution because my brain has run so far away with me that I struggle to get it back under control.
I know this is hard for friends and family who want to help but don’t know what to say. Supporting someone you love with a mental health condition can be really tough.
I appreciate that the people I love are trying to offer comfort, but I know they sometimes find it difficult. Often just having someone to listen or sit with me really helps.
But I’ve also heard some really unhelpful ‘advice’ in the past. I’ll share them here as a list of phrases to avoid if your loved one is having a hard time.
What not to say to someone with anxiety…
“Just get over it”
This one is similar to “you’ve just got to snap out of it” – my least favourite. When I’m feeling anxious all I want to do is ‘snap out of it’. Believe me, it’s more annoying to me than it is to you! Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Anxiety is your fight or flight response in overdrive – so everything becomes a threat and your whole body is on edge.
It’s hard for people to understand, but just because you can’t see anxiety doesn’t mean it isn’t real. You’d never tell someone with a broken leg to “just walk on it” so you can’t apply that to a mental health condition either.
“Don’t worry, it’s all in your head”
Although this sounds harsh, I can see how people think it might help. The things I’m worrying about are all in my head and will probably never happen, so I shouldn’t worry about them. Sadly though, this isn’t helpful. I know my symptoms are happening because my brain is playing tricks on me, but that actually makes it worse. If I can’t trust my own brain, what can I trust?
“It could be worse”
Please don’t put this thought in my head when I’m already anxious. Chances are, I’m thinking about the worst possible outcome already, but if I’m not this might trigger it. Plus, I get anxious about my anxiety (I know, right?!), so I’m already worrying that I shouldn’t be anxious because other people have it worse. Or that by being anxious all the time I’m getting annoying and people are fed up with me. So telling me it could be worse will probably make it worse. Sorry.
“I know how you feel”
People say this a lot when they’re trying to empathise and be supportive, but it’s not actually that helpful. Even if you have anxiety too, or have had it in the past, everyone experiences it differently. Saying this steers the focus away from the person who is struggling and puts it on to you. If that person is already anxious that they’re being a burden, this might make them feel worse and encourage them to retreat.
I know you’re saying this to make me realise I’m not alone and that you want to be there for me, but that’s not how it comes across. It’s better to say “I’m here for you”, “you’re not alone” or even “tell me how you feel”.
“There’s nothing to worry about”
It may seem obvious to you that there’s nothing wrong, but that’s not how it feels to the anxious person. Although you’re trying to calm them down, saying “there’s nothing to worry about” can invalidate their feelings. Plus you can’t guarantee that nothing will go wrong. This is the same as saying “everything will be fine” – if you say that and then it’s not, it will make their anxiety worse next time.
Anxiety has its highs and lows, and like any mental health condition, it’s often misunderstood. You can’t always see it or tell that someone is struggling. Often the simple act of sitting with a friend and talking through our feelings can really help resolve the situation.
I don’t want this post to put people off. I know that in the past some friends have avoided me when I’m struggling because they don’t know what to say. Being there for the person you love is the most important thing. Remember that anxiety sufferers may be feeling self conscious and guilty. They want it to stop but they don’t always know how. You don’t have to have the answers for them, just be there to listen.
If you’re looking for the opposite to this post, read my guide on helpful things to say to someone with an anxiety disorder.