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10 Things Not to Say to Someone With Anxiety

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) tends to be more than the normal level of anxiety we all experience on a daily basis.

It is chronic and includes experiencing severe worry and tension, often without provocation or warning. Generalised anxiety involves anticipating disaster, often worrying excessively about work, health, family, or money.

At times it can be debilitating, but people with GAD can experience months of low-level anxiety only to be hit with overwhelming foreboding out of nowhere. Sometimes there are triggers, such as stressful or difficult experiences, whereas other times anxiety can be brought on by nothing at all.

The condition’s unpredictability and mostly internal nature has influenced how people view and respond to those with GAD. A lot of the time, people expect those with anxiety to walk around looking miserable or to completely isolate themselves from social gatherings etc. Whilst this can be symptoms of anxiety, most people with anxiety have learned to adapt their condition to manage these situations very well. This is usually referred to as high-functioning anxiety.

Here are my 10 favourite examples of annoying things people tend to say

1. “Everyone gets anxious.”

In one sense you are absolutely right. Everyone does get anxious. However, not everyone has anxiety. Basically what you are telling someone is that their current condition of difficulty is exactly the same as everyone else’s and they should just ‘deal with it’. Not only have you completely invalidated their personal experience of right now but you have dismissed it as every day. The thought that this happens to everyone, every day, is terrifying.

“Just don’t worry about it.”

Well see the thing about this is – if they could, they would. You might as well ask them to stop a freight train with their bare hands. It would be fantastic to not wake up at 3 A.M. and write down the thoughts playing on repeat in order to try and fall back to sleep. Personally, I think it’s an elusive superpower skill for people to be able to stop thinking about something at will.

3. “You should trust in Allah more.”

Thanks… there is nothing helpful about suggesting to another Muslim that they are not doing enough to please God. By telling someone that their “worries” are because they don’t trust Allah to sort out their problems is rude and hurtful. Anxiety is not something you can control. It is irrational noise that is sometimes manageable and other times not. Please don’t religion-shame them.

4. “Think about how lucky you are compared to others.”

This has to be one of the worst things to say to anyone feeling down and out. And yet, unfortunately it is one of the most frequently-used lines. Yes, remembering that your problems are not the only ones in the world can sometimes help, but the huge amount of guilt that emerges from feeling how you feel when there are starving children, oppressed women, genocides etc. in the world, does not. In fact, that could make the person feel even worse because then they have to contend with the idea that they are selfish as well as everything else.

5. “No one who reads Qur’an regularly will feel like this.”

I had to leave the hall because I was so overwhelmed by the frightening thought that there were depressed, possibly suicidal, listeners in the audience who had just been told their efforts were not enough. tweet

Great. So, someone is currently just about managing to pray, and you have invalidated that effort because Muslims who read Qur’an regularly won’t feel like this anyway… wonderful news. I actually heard this in a public lecture. I had to leave the hall because I was so overwhelmed by the frightening thought that there were depressed, possibly suicidal, listeners in the audience who had just been told their efforts were not enough. Attitudes like this only serve to prolong the existing stigma within Muslim spaces surrounding mental health.

6. “Calm down.”

Panic attacks are not fun. Not being able to breath because of a thought(s) is not fun. It is not something a person is in control of at that moment. If they could stop it, they would. No one likes not being in control of their breathing, or having people stare, etc. Please, don’t patronise them.

7. “It’s all in your head.”

Well, duh! This is a major part of nearly every mindfulness exercise out there. “I am not my thoughts” has become their mantra. But that doesn’t mean negative thoughts lose their grip overnight. Learning to separate yourself from your thoughts is a skill that takes time and practise. Per-lease don’t state the obvious.

8. “Be more positive. Don’t be sad.”

Ah this well-meant suggestion or gift book purchase…

Believe it or not but not all people with anxiety are sad. Although the two are very closely linked, anxiety is not always necessarily about feeling low. Sadness and depression get mixed up all the time anyway. Please don’t confuse things any further.

9. “Have you tried…?”

Yes, they probably have! It is more than likely that the person you are about to suggest your ‘relaxation technique’ to has tried it before. Obviously, if they ask you for ideas then suggest away — but it might be better to ask the person what they have tried first before you recommend lavender oil for the umpteenth time to them.

10. “I feel the exact same way/I totally understand what you are going through!”

This is the absolute worst. Of course you have had your fair share of worries and difficult times. And it is perfectly natural to try and relate yourself to the other person’s situation. But don’t forget that they are experiencing this right now whereas, more often than not, your experience is something you are talking about retrospectively, which has given you the luxury of distance and hindsight. Trying to mirror your own experience with theirs could also infer that, because you have managed to get through your difficult experience, theirs shouldn’t be a problem.

None of us truly know what another person is going through because we are all different. tweet

This can then verge into “everyone gets anxious” territory as discussed in point 1 above. Regardless, saying that you “totally understand” tends to invalidate that person’s individual experience. None of us truly know what another person is going through because we are all different.

Now that we’ve got all that out of the way you might be thinking – OK, so what do I say or do?

To be honest, there isn’t any one-size-fits-all solution to this. Just like when we have the flu or a broken leg, everyone likes to be supported in a slightly different way.

Having said that, just being present and listening is powerful. Sometimes people with anxiety have so many different conversations/ thought processes happening in their heads it can help to get it out. Listening, without judgement, can help them get rid of some of that negative noise.

This short video is really useful as it explains the difference between empathy and sympathy, specifically relating to mental health, which will help when choosing the way in which you talk:

Also, check out The Latest Kate’s incredible artwork that combines beautiful images with inspiring quotes designed specifically for people with anxiety. Your support could be as simple as forwarding one of these images and letting the person know you are there when they need you.

Try not to be too demanding for answers. There’s a lot going on in their heads and sometimes it can be overwhelming and hard to make sense of it all. You may think that asking “what’s wrong?” or “what do they need?” is being helpful, but sometimes it can be asking for them to process yet another idea, which can be exhausting.

Lastly, I am not an expert so please feel free to browse the following resources for more information:

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