Are You Anxious or Over Anxious?

by Jerry Kennard, Ph.D. Medical Reviewer

I’m sorry if you’ve approached this thinking it was a quiz. In fact it’s more about words, the way they are used and how what we choose to say affects people – in this case people with an anxiety disorder. Even if you don’t suffer from anxiety you’ll still be familiar with the way a barbed comment can sting. Now try amplifying this and you’re someway towards understanding how throwaway or even well intentioned remarks can hurt.

People with anxiety issues aren’t liable to forget they have them. If there were a quick, or even a less-quick fix, they’d be first in line to sign up. Therefore they don’t benefit from being told they are over-thinking an issue or worrying far too much. In its own way it’s as patronizing as being told things will get better, or they just need a rest, or to calm down. Insensitivity in language becomes especially apparent when you actually do feel more sensitive and vulnerable

We live in an age of exaggeration. What was once big is now huge and what were once ‘effects’ have given way to impacts. During my browse of the Saturday newspaper I came across an article by Steven Poole, in The Guardian. He picks up on exactly these issues by referring to the use of ‘over’ in everyday language. Pool makes the point that we can’t just be sensitive anymore without being accused of being oversensitive. Similarly we can’t just be anxious we’re overanxious. I would extend these observations to point out that if people dare to speak up or complain about how we’re being spoken to, or portrayed, they are often accused of being overassertive or overly defensive.

Take the anxiety out of a person and you take away the vulnerabilities that come alongside it. But the use of language in others often says more about their own fears and insecurities. When someone places the prefix ‘over’ or ‘hyper’ in front of a quality you know or suspect to be true about yourself, it doesn’t give it more credibility or validity, but it may feel worse. The use of such language can be used as a weapon but it also reflects a style of language increasingly be used without much considering as to its possible effect (or is that impact)?

If we examine exaggerated language it often doesn’t amount to much. How do we measure the difference between being sensitive or oversensitive, or anxious, very anxious or overanxious? The more you look at it the less it seems to hold up. So it’s often more about cultural norms. What remains important is the fact that words can do damage and as most people are tuned towards the negative it remains the case that ten words of praise do not necessarily offset just one of criticism. So if you know someone with an anxiety disorder be a little thoughtful about your choice of words. If you’re someone with an anxiety disorder remind yourself that words are thrown around like confetti and you may be suffering needlessly from someone else’s ignorance.

Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.
Meet Our Writer
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D.

Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s work background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of