Many of us have a friend, loved one, or simply someone we know who struggles with anxiety. Therefore, we are also aware that finding the right thing to say can be difficult. Chances are that we want to offer them support, especially in the times they are experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety. It is in these moments that the right words can be comforting – but it is just as important to recognise what not to say at times like that.
Studies suggest that anxiety disorders are the most common form of mental illness in the United States, affecting about 18 percent of the population each year. If the actual symptoms of anxiety (racing heart, sweaty palms, dizziness, trembling, and inner turmoil) aren’t life-hindering enough, many people with anxiety also withstand well intentioned, but hurtful, comments from people who don’t truly understand the nature of the disorder, and how serious it really is. And of course, it’s not as simple as "being worried".
This subject of anxiety, particularly those with social anxiety, is one which we have covered on the oVRcome blog over the last year. If you’d like to read more, why not check out Liam Tracey's article on Living with social anxiety? It takes a look at how social anxiety can impact sufferers in social situations, in a working environment and the possible effects on their relationships.
Every person has a different relationship with anxiety. There is no one size fits all approach to supporting those with the condition. But one thing that is true across the board is the desire and need for support from others, particularly when anxiety levels are increasing.
It is important to learn how you can help a person who deals with overwhelming anxiety and make them feel safe, supported, and understood by saying helpful things to them. But at the same time, you should also be aware of things that are not helpful to tell a person with anxiety. The unhelpful questions or statements can sometimes create more anxiety for people.
So, here are some of those things which you shouldn’t say, and perhaps the alternatives, the words of support that you can offer the person, who will likely be very grateful to hear something different for a change.
1. “Calm down.”
Telling someone to “calm down” has never, ever made it happen. To someone with anxiety, this all-too-common phrase is patronising and annoying.
Instead, be calm, talk gently, and slow your breathing so you don’t also become anxious. Try saying something like, “I’m here for you,” “I’m here to listen,” or “I’ll stay with you.”
2. “Get over it.”
People don’t choose to have anxiety. It’s a health condition, just like high blood pressure or allergies. Saying this to someone is insensitive at best; at worst, it signals an unwillingness to help the individual deal with a chronic condition and the concern at hand.
You could say something like, “This is tough, but we’ll get through it together.” And back that statement up with action - stay with them as needed, help them find treatment, if appropriate, and become the person they can rely on when things are challenging.
3. “Stop thinking about it.”
Asking someone to stop thinking about something will almost certainly lead to them focussing directly on that thing. So, when considering this from an anxiety perspective, you really won’t be having a positive impact.
Alternatively, why not try "I know this kind of thing makes you really anxious. If you want to talk about what you're feeling, I'm all ears." It’s far more helpful for an anxious person to acknowledge the worry, validate it, and say, “This is how I feel. This is my worry. I’m going to accept it and hope I can let it go.”
4. “Have you tried meditation / yoga / ...?”
There are many anti-anxiety trends that have taken pop culture by storm that might be helpful for some people. But they might not. We mentioned earlier that there is no one size fits all approach to help those with anxiety and this style of comment implies the opposite.
Instead, ask “What can I do to help you?” If your friend has been dealing with anxiety for a while, chances are they already know what does and doesn’t help them feel better. Ask what they need and then do it, even if their request seems silly to you.
People who suffer with anxiety need support from the people who care about them. It is therefore crucial to know what to say and what not to say to them if you want to help. Even if you can’t take your friend’s anxiety away, showing support can help them feel more comfortable and take away some of the stigma that compels them to hide — which is a pretty amazing thing to do for someone.
The team at oVRcome have developed a programme which uses exposure therapy through virtual reality experiences to support those with social anxiety. We have also developed a free Social Anxiety Test which delivers a personalised report to see where you are at. Why not take it today?