Top Ten Things Not to Say to someone who suffers from Anxiety
If you are a person who suffers from anxiety, stress, panic attacks, or phobias you have probably heard a lot of well meaning advice, clichés, and suggestions meant to either console you or get you to buck up and be "normal." But quite often these sayings backfire and end up making us feel misunderstood or even more anxious. I am sure many of you can relate to this list. My goal is to get the general public to understand that anxiety and related problems will not be cured by clichés. It is a lot more complex than that and what does help the most is for someone to just listen and be empathic before offering any advice.
Here are some unhelpful bits of advice which have been said to me over the years in response to my battle with anxiety. Tell me if you have heard any of these.
1. "Just do it!" This tennis shoe slogan has generalized to become some sort of prescription for whatever ails you. Afraid to swim in deep water? Just do it. Afraid of flying? Just hop on that airplane. I can tell you that immersion in what frightens you most without any steps in between quite often makes the phobia worse and not better. If it were that easy don't you think we would just be doing it?
2. "There's nothing to be afraid of." Well that is easy for you to say! You aren't feeling the fear I am feeling. It is very hard to put yourself in someone else's shoes when you don't feel that way yourself. I am not fearful of movie theaters for example. But some people are. Just because I am not fearful doesn't give me the right to tell someone who is, that there is nothing to be afraid of. Fear and anxiety are unique to each individual.
3. "You have more of a chance of being killed by a wild boar than dying in an airplane crash." Here is something to chew on for the folk who like to cite statistics related to phobias. Phobias are not logical. We who suffer from phobias understand all the logic and statistics. We have heard it all before and it does not take the fear away! The experience is frightening and sets off a physiological response. Logic will not hinder this fear response for most phobic people.
4. "Don't sweat the small stuff." This is the title of one of those self help books which has turned into a cliché. I am a person who does sweat the "small stuff." The thing is, who is to say what is small or big stuff to sweat about? What may not be a problem for one person can be a source of overwhelming stress to another. When it comes to fear and anxiety, judgments don't help.
5. "Everything will be just fine." It sounds good and I want to be consoled by such a message but it also can sound dismissive. You may think everything will be fine but I don't feel that way, otherwise I would not be anxious. When someone says this, it cuts off exploration and any further conversation about what is bothering me.
6. "You think you have problems, well let me tell you..." In any given situation there will always be a one upper. You know, the person who will declare that what they have to deal with is far worse than any problems you may have. This type of response only serves to make the other person feel better about themselves at your expense. There is no consolation here except to feel worse for having shown vulnerability in exposing your fears and anxieties.
7. "You look nervous." Okay stating the obvious only makes things worse for the nervous freaked out person. This statement of fact only serves to make me more nervous as now I am anxious about appearing anxious! It truly doesn't help.
8. "You are selfish." Maybe it is not said so overtly but it is quite often implied that an anxious person is ruining the good time party feel of life. Whether it was because I turned down a happening social event (as I suffer from social anxiety) or declined to ride the thrill rides at the amusement park, I was considered a downer. It is no wonder that people who suffer from anxiety and phobias have issues with self esteem.
9. "Is there something wrong with you?" This was asked of me by a very concerned little old driving instructor as I was taking my driving lessons. He stopped our lesson, parked the car, and asked me this question very intently. He didn't say this with any ounce of maliciousness but it still hurt. He simply deduced that there was something up with a thirty something woman who broke out into a sweat each time she started up the car. It rapidly diminished my self confidence to think that my instructor questioned my mental status. My anxiety was heightened by my self-awareness that I was not acting as someone expected I should.
10. "You are a yellow bellied wussy wimp!" So maybe this is a remnant of childhood but the sentiment still lives on for us anxiety prone people. Some of us carry on this dialogue we heard as a kid by internalizing these messages. Some of the worst things said to us are quite often the things we say to ourselves. In answer to this type of inner "constructive criticism" I say, "Yes I am!" Sometimes just accepting the fact that you do get scared and anxious makes it less of a bad thing. I am a good and worthy person who feels fear and anxiety. There is no need to beat myself up over it.
Now that you have seen my personal list, how about sharing what would be on your list. What have people said to you over the years about your anxiety and what has been less than helpful? I think it is good for others to know what helps and what doesn't. We love to hear from you! Tell us your story, we want to listen.