Anxiety feels like that moment you realise you’re tripping down a steep set of stairs, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Except, for anxiety sufferers, that feeling doesn’t last for a few seconds. It serves no real protective purpose, where a surge of Adrenalin might be helpful in prompting us to act fast. There’s no fall – but rather the perpetual feeling we’re about to fall – stuck in mid-air bracing for the worst. That sensation can be sustained for weeks, months or years, and it’s crippling.
One of the worst parts of living with anxiety, is that no one else can see the set of stairs you’re plummeting from. You are isolated in your experience, and struggle to find the right words to describe how the world, which looks quite alright to everybody else, is actually falling apart.
If there were a switch at the back of your head, which could turn anxiety from ‘on’ to ‘off’, you’d flick it immediately. Sometimes, late at night, your fingers might desperately try to find it. It is not a part of yourself you like or feel as though you have any control over. It’s a beast that creeps up on you at the very moments you are least able to deal with it. If you didn’t know better, you might even think your anxiety has a hint of a sense of humour.
How to help someone with anxiety. Post continues below.
But because anxiety isn’t necessarily visible to the naked eye, friends and family often don’t know quite what to say. Why can’t you just pull it together? Things really aren’t that bad. There are people in the world who have it much worse – and yet it’s you lying in the foetal position unable to get out of bed.
Interestingly, their words aren’t new or shocking. They go through your head several times a day. But having these things said to you out loud are exceptionally unhelpful.
Here are the things you should never, ever say to someone with anxiety:
1. “You’re acting crazy right now…”
Well. Accusing someone of acting crazy is really something you should never say to anybody under any circumstance. But it can be particularly hurtful when you are suffering from a mental illness and indeed feel like you might be going ‘crazy’. The word itself is incredibly stigmatising, associating mental illness with ‘madness’ and ultimately making it less likely for someone suffering to seek help.
You might be having a panic attack, or hyperventilating, or ‘over-reacting’ to a relatively minor situation, but they are all symptomatic of the illness. Branding someone as ‘crazy’ certainly doesn’t make them feel heard of validated.
Instead, be empathetic and calming. Don’t accuse them of anything – just ask if they’re okay.
2. “You’re blowing it out of proportion and making it a bigger deal than it needs to be…”
“Blowing things out of proportion” is also a feature of the illness, and something people with anxiety cannot necessarily control.
Health anxiety, for example, has people truly believing they have cancer. Of course their worry is out of proportion, but no amount of telling them that will dispel their deeply held beliefs.
You can reassure anxious people, but also know that won’t ‘cure’ them. Listen – and sometimes it’s appropriate to challenge. But try and suspend judgement.
3. “Wooow. Your face just turned really red.”/”Are your hands shaking?”
Pointing out signs of anxiety or nerves is precisely never helpful.
Nothing exacerbates anxiety like being told everyone knows they’re anxious. If you do see someone blushing, or shaking, don’t bring it up. They definitely know already. If you’re worried about them, gently ask: “Are you alright?” but it’s always best not to be critical.
4. “It’s all in your head.”
And that’s exactly the problem.
You might mean well, but just because something is ‘only in someone’s head’ doesn’t make it any less real. Our minds directly effect how we see and interact with the world.
Reassure them that things will get better, and suggest they go to their GP and ask about a mental health plan if their anxiety is becoming overwhelming.
5. Do not send them an inspirational quote from Instagram.
No one ever had their anxiety ‘cured’ by a well-worded quote on Instagram.
They generally make happiness and peace look very, very easy to obtain, and can make somebody who is suffering feel more like a failure.
A quote like: “Do you want to be happy? Let go of what’s gone, be grateful for what remains and look forward to what is coming,” might inspire someone who is not suffering from mental illness, but a simplistic approach to really complex problems can make people feel as though they’re not being understood.
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If you know someone who is having a tough time, listen. Don’t be impatient or abrupt, and don’t make it your mission to ‘fix’ them.
Just be there, and if you can see that their anxiety is interfering with their day-to-day life, then direct them to professional help.
If you think you may be experiencing anxiety or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner or in Australia, contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue 1300 22 4636.