Thursday, 2 February 2017

7 Things Not To Say To Someone With Anxiety Disorder

This is a first draft of an article I wrote for publication in Essentials magazine in September 2016...my first ever published piece!..., but now that the final article has been published I wanted to share the original draft here on my blog too!

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My palms are sweaty, my heart is racing, a feeling of dizziness overcomes me - "Oh no," I think to myself..."I'm panicking". I take a few deep breaths to calm myself, but a feeling of sickness washes over me. My stomach churns. "Everybody is staring at me" I tell myself.

In reality, I'm standing in line at the supermarket waiting to pay for my items - unless you really looked at me carefully, you wouldn't be able to tell how I'm feeling. I look just like everybody else. 

This isn't an unusual occurrence for me. Something as simple as buying milk can become overwhelming very quickly - as I stand in line I worry about every aspect of that simple transaction - whether I have enough cash in my purse (What if it's dropped out and I didn't realise? What if my notes are counterfeit? What if I try to hand the money over and drop it?), whether the cashier will try to speak to me and what I should say, whether I'll drop the milk as I try to put it on the counter. 

These worries plagues my mind constantly. No matter what I'm doing or how easy it may seem - my mind will always tell me that everybody around me thinks I'm stupid, that everything that could go wrong will go wrong. 

This is life with generalised anxiety disorder.

I've been living this way for as long as I can remember, I don't know how it feels not to worry about every single aspect of every single day.

It's exhausting. And it's not only difficult for me, but it's difficult for my loved ones too - to know how they can help when it's at its worst.

Anxiety disorders are said to affect around 5% of the adult population of the UK, although due to sufferers reluctance to seek professional diagnosis and help the true figure is believed to be much higher.

Here are some of the worst things you can say to an anxiety sufferer, and what to say instead.

"Pull Yourself Together"/"Snap Out Of It"

These kinds of comments are the most common to hear, and also the most frustrating.

Many people believe that "tough love" is the way to go when it comes to dealing with anxiety sufferers, but it really isn't helpful. 

When anxiety really has its grip on me there is nothing I would love more than to simply be able to "Snap out of it" - at it's worst anxiety can leave me gasping for breath, feeling (and sometimes being) sick, suffering with IBS symptoms, even screaming in fear - and those are just the physical symptoms. Why would I choose to subject myself to that if I could stop it so easily by simply "Pulling myself together" ? 

Asking an anxiety sufferer to "Just snap out of it" is the equivalent of asking an asthma sufferer to "Just breathe" - impossible, ridiculous, and cruel.

Instead Try: "Would you like to talk about how you're feeling?"

Talking is so underrated when it comes to anxiety, and quite often the simple act of talking through our feelings can be enough to resolve the situation.

"But you were fine yesterday" / "You can't have anxiety disorder - you're always out doing things!"

One of the most common things I hear when people find out that I suffer with GAD and social anxiety is this - peopleoften think that unless you lock yourself indoors every hour of the day you can't possibly be suffering. 

But anxiety, like most things in life, comes in peaks and troughs - some days I feel pretty normal, and I manage to socialise and have a good time. Other days just the prospect of opening the front door to the postman leaves me in tears.

Anxiety is unpredictable and ever-changing - which is part of what makes it so frightening to live with.

Instead Try: "Would you like to talk about it?"

Noticing a theme yet? Talking really is the key to dealing with anxiety, and it's so reassuring when somebody shows their support in this way.

"Calm Down"

What happens when you ask me to "Calm Down" from a panic attack is one of two things - either I will panic more because I'm trying so desperately to calm myself and am not able to, or I will manage eventually to swallow down the emotions I'm feeling - and in that situation you may think that your tough love has worked - but it hasn't. 

Because what happens is that those feelings of anxiety are pushed down inside me when what they really need is to be let out.

Think of an anxiety sufferer as like a bottle of fizzy drink - every time they have an anxiety attack the bottle is shaken a little bit more - and when you tell them to "Calm down" you're just holding the lid down tighter -  but eventually that lid will need to come off and the more times the bottle has been shaken without release, the worse it will be...

Instead Try: "What can I do to help you feel calmer?"

A lot of anxiety sufferers will have tried & tested methods of calming themselves down, if you ask how you can help they may just be able to suggest something practical that you can do to assist them.  
If you must suggest something, breathing exercises are a good thing to try - you can go through them together and it gives the sufferer something to focus on. 

What Do You Have To Be Worried About? / There Are People Much Worse Off Than You

Anxiety usually goes hand in hand with feelings of guilt, shame and self-deprecation - to trivialise a sufferers worries by comparing them to "more serious problems" is only going to worsen those feelings, which in turn will only increase the anxiety. 

It's unacceptable to belittle someone's suffering simply because "Other people have it worse"

One of the worst experiences I had with anxiety was when someone rolled their eyes at me and said "But you have a lovely life and lovely children...what do you have to worry about?" - all that did was make me feel embarrassed and guilty for not being able to choke down my feelings and appreciate my life more - it made me question what was so wrong with me that I was unable to do that. And it resulted in me having one of the worst panic attacks I've ever had.

If there's one thing you can count on, it's that an anxiety sufferer will already be worrying that you're judging them - don't make things worse.

Instead Try: "I'm sorry to see you're feeling this way."

Of course anxiety sufferers don't want to be showered with sympathy, but saying something like this shows that you're withholding judgement and that is so important to us - support and encouragement are the things we really need.

"Everyone Worries, It's Normal"

I completely understand why people say this - and they're right, everyone DOES worry and it's hard for people who have never experienced anxiety to understand the difference - but there is a huge difference between "normal" worry and anxiety disorder.

Living with anxiety is living with a constant voice inside your head telling you that everything you do, say and think is wrong and stupid. That you're failing at everything, that nobody likes you, that the worst possible thing you can imagine is going to happen. 

Think about those moments in life when you panic for a moment and you don't know what the outcome of a situation is going to be - like when you trip and fall, and there's that heart-stopping moment before you land where you don't know if you're going to be ok.

Anxiety feels just like millisecond of panic...but all of the time. 

Instead Try: "What usually helps you to feel better?" 

Asking somebody to think about things that have helped them in the past can help focus their attention on the positive and move forward.

"Everything Will Be Fine"

I know that when people say this, they're truly trying to help.

But when I feel as though my world is crumbling and fear has taken over, hearing those words just makes me feel more frightened and angry.

Because in that moment everything feels the furthest thing from fine - it feels as though nothing will be fine ever again, and hearing you say that it will be just scares me more. 

Instead Try: "I'm here for you"

It offers the same comfort and support that you intended to give, but you're not promising me things that you can't guarantee. Telling me that you're here for me will reassure me without worsening my fears.

"Don't Be Shy/Don't Be Silly"

These ones are usually reserved for children with anxiety. Often people don't realise that children and teenagers suffer too, so often anxiety in young people is misinterpreted as shyness or awkwardness.

My own anxiety began early in childhood, I couldn't begin to count how many times people passed it off as shyness or childhood silliness. Anxiety is a confusing, terrifying state of mind for anybody to be in and for a child it can feel all the more isolating when their worries are dismissed and trivialised in this way.

Instead Try: "It's ok to feel worried. How can I help you to feel better?"

Acknowledging a child's concerns and letting them know it's ok to have those worries is so important, and will help them to understand that they can talk to you about it without fear of being dismissed.


The most important thing to remember is that anxiety sufferers are already feeling self conscious and guilty, and they WANT it to stop. The best thing you can do is to not dismiss it, not compare it, not berate them. Just talk it out.

 It's an age old cliche but it's so very true - it really is good to talk.

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11 comments

  1. This is a fantastic post. So well expressed and so helpful for those who don't understand what GAD can be like. I still get people who refuse to believe I suffer because a lot of the time I appear outgoing and confident. Of course they don't see me on bad days - I don't leave the house! One day I will be brave enough to write about it, but not yet. Thank you for writing this. x

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  2. I wanted to poke my friend in the eye when she said 'just dont think about it'...erm if it was that easy then I wouldnt have any probs in the first place grrrrrr

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  3. Pull yourself together is the worst! These are great tips for those suffering with depression to! Sometimes people really should think before they open their mouth! #KCACOLS

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  4. Well done on being published!! Really insightful post. I'm lucky enough not to suffer myself though know people who do. I hope this reaches the right people to help make life easier for those that are struggling xx #KCACOLS

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  5. Since my dad died last year both me and my daughter have suffered with anxiety. People think that as it was nearly a year ago we should be "over it" . He was a huge part of our lives and it was a huge loss to us. I have heard all these things said to me. There needs to be more understanding of anxiety.
    #KCACOLS

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  6. I think so often people don't understand anxiety, and so don't really know what to say, so they either try and placate people "it's fine, don't worry" or are dismissive of it. Hopefully this post will reach some of those people so they'll know what to say that is actually helpful to someone with anxiety. x #KCACOLS

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  7. I think anxiety is one of those things that is extremely difficult to understand unless you've experienced. I sometimes have episodes of anxiety that can last from days to months where I have no idea what is causing the worry. It starts as a knot in my stomach that grows. It stops me from eating and sleeping, it's all I can think about. And then just as quickly as it started it stops. I can't begin to imagine what it's like to suffer day in day out. #LCACOLS

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  8. so so true. i have a phobia of vomiting and the things people say, and family and friends who know me well, do not often help. its tough though. i think often people are just oblivious to how much of an impact anxiety has. the worst for me is "grow up" and "get over it" - if only it was so easy, i would have tried 30 years ago ;) Thanks so much for linking up at #KCACOLS. Hope you come back again next Sunday!

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  9. My mum used to tell me people had it worse off when I was a teenager. They did but I also had an undiagnosed anxiety disorder. #kcacols

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  10. You're so brave for sharing this. I'm sure it will help other anxiety sufferers and it's certainly helped me to know what to say. Thank you x #KCACOLS

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  11. I remember having a anxiety induced panic attack in the supermarket once, and then being told to pull myself together. It doesn't help!
    Sometimes I think people who don't know what it's like aren't always sure what to say. Thank you for sharing this. There's some great tips here :)

    #KCACOLS

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