What Not to Say to Someone With Anxiety

Anxiety is one of many natural responses to stress. Everyone feels some anxiety occasionally, such as when starting work at a new company. Typically, anxiety is alleviated when the stressful situation is over.

For example, a dental patient may feel anxiety about having a tooth extracted. However, he or she may feel much better immediately after the procedure.

Some anxiety is normal, but if you have a loved one who suffers from frequent bouts of anxiety, including panic attacks, it is difficult to know what to do. You may want to help your family member or friend conquer the seemingly irrational fears fueling the attacks, but there is no simple solution. One thing you definitely can do to help your loved one cope is avoid accidentally making the situation worse by saying the wrong thing. Certain phrases are, at best, not helpful when talking to an anxiety sufferer. Some can make the situation worse. Below is a list of what not to say to someone with anxiety.

Phrases That Minimize Their Struggle

When speaking to someone with anxiety, avoid use of any phrases designed to minimize the importance of the anxiety. Your loved one may interpret phrases you use in an attempt to minimize the situation as insults. They imply you think the anxiety sufferer is worrying over nothing. Using such phrases also implies a sense of control, as if your loved one has the power to stop worrying on command. However, anxious thoughts are extremely compelling. They feel real, so much so that anxiety often comes with physical symptoms that are hard to ignore.

Examples of minimizing phrases include:

  • “It’s no big deal.”
  • “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”
  • “It’s no use crying over spilled milk.”
  • “Buck up.”

Instead, encourage your loved one with positive words. If he or she suffers from regular panic and anxiety attacks, mention you know how hard it is to overcome them. Doing so validates the situation and implies you understand how big of a struggle it is to get through an anxiety attack. You can also discuss previous anxiety attacks and how your loved one overcame them. A gentle reminder of his or her strength may help alleviate the current anxiety attack symptoms.

“Just do it.” or “Just stop doing it.”

Anxiety can manifest in many ways. For example, your loved one may find it impossible to perform a certain task. Conversely, he or she may feel compelled to perform the same tasks obsessively. The latter is called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). In either case, using phrases like “Just do it.” or “Just stop doing it.” does not help you or the anxiety sufferer. Use of such phrases can easily lead to more stress for both of you.

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When you tell an anxiety sufferer to stop or not to stop doing something, you imply he or she has a choice. An anxiety sufferer knows his or her fears are irrational. However, he or she is incapable of suddenly feeling fine as if a switch is flipped. Anxiety and panic attacks are not pleasant experiences. If your loved one could avoid having them, he or she would do so.

When your loved one has an anxiety attack, giving orders as if there is a choice creates animosity and tension. It causes more stress because the anxiety sufferer needs to put energy into defending the condition. He or she may feel an obligation to try to explain thoughts that are, by nature, irrational. Yet, those thoughts are also unavoidable. When you empathize with the situation instead, you can often help defuse it because your loved one then knows you accept the situation, even if you do not fully understand it.

“Calm down.”

Before telling someone with extreme anxiety to calm down, consider how you handle stress personally. It is likely you find it difficult or impossible to calm down immediately when you are angry or upset. For someone with an anxiety disorder, calming down quickly is far more difficult, if not impossible. By definition, an anxiety attack or panic attack is an uncontrollable reaction to stress. Do not expect your loved one to control it quickly or on command.

Instead of ordering an anxiety sufferer to calm down, find activities to do together that may help the process. Participating in calming activities with you may help alleviate anxiety symptoms over time. One option is to indulge in a favorite hobby the anxiety suffer has, such as horseback riding or painting. You can also suggest other soothing alternatives, such as:

None of those activities typically cure panic attacks instantly, but they can help alleviate symptoms over time. Frequent participation in them may also reduce the frequency of such attacks. Encourage your loved one to find as many enjoyable activities as possible to do with and without you that help alleviate stress.

“A beer should help you relax.”

On the surface, suggesting an anxiety sufferer have one or two alcoholic drinks may seem like a good idea. Alcohol often lowers inhibitions and can have a relaxing affect. Having a drink or two may even stop a current anxiety attack. However, there are many reasons to keep someone with an anxiety disorder away from alcohol, aside from encouraging unhealthy habits.

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Alcohol can be addictive, and often leads to substance abuse, especially to someone who thinks they need it all the time to relieve anxiety. An anxiety sufferer who drinks frequently can easily develop an increased tolerance. Therefore, any positive effects gained may vanish, unless he or she drinks more. Other side effects of combining an anxiety disorder with alcohol consumption include:

  • Increased depression and possible suicidal tendencies.
  • Physical side effects of alcohol dependency, such as memory loss.
  • Liver damage.
  • Nausea.
  • Low blood sugar levels.

One of the most compelling reasons not to encourage an anxiety sufferer to consume alcohol is alcohol can actually cause additional anxiety. Alcohol alters chemical reactions inside the brain. It makes recovering from emotional trauma more difficult. If an anxiety sufferer does turn to alcohol for self-medicating purposes for a period of time, altering that strategy is also hazardous because anxiety attacks are easily triggered by alcohol withdrawal.

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