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2 Things Not to Say to an Anxious Person

Anxiety can't just be turned off, so don't suggest that it can.

Key points

  • Those who don't experience pervasive anxiety may struggle to understand why anxiety sufferers can't just stop being anxious.
  • Telling an anxious person to "calm down" or "just don't think about" their anxiety can make them feel unsupported and irritated.
  • Acknowledging their discomfort and partnering with the anxious person to problem-solve tends to yield more positive results.

Anxiety needs no introduction. Who, for instance, hasn't been in a situation where being on high alert somehow saved your hide? Afterward, there's a good chance you returned to a non-anxious state and went about your life. Evolved to ideally be such a constructive tool of self-preservation, anxiety unfortunately can persistently expand in others to the point they wish they were dead. Imagine being in that state of "high alert" in perpetuity.

Kat Smith/Pexels
Source: Kat Smith/Pexels

Perhaps it's driven by worry, or the frightening, intrusive thoughts of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Maybe it's hypervigilance as trauma fallout or the suffocating feeling of being away from safety in agoraphobia. Whatever the form, for pervasive anxiety sufferers, there is no return to a non-anxious state.

For the non-afflicted, it can be confusing as to why someone in such a state can't "just calm down." Consequently, "calm down" or something similar may be their advice upon encountering the seismically nervous, which, ultimately, may only serve to exacerbate matters.

Similar to the experiences of depressed people, as written about in "2 Things Not to Say to Someone Who Is Depressed," anxiety sufferers receive well-meaning but unhelpful advice from the uninitiated. Unfortunately, you can almost count on it backfiring, as the offerings suggest the advice-givers simply don't get what they're going through. In turn, the anxious person, seeking support, may feel alienated, engendering irritation/further angst, which does anything but cultivate wellness.

If you know someone who is pervasively anxious or you encounter such individuals on the job and aren't sure what to say, avoiding the following two phrases will likely up your game, especially if you replace them with the suggested alternatives.

1. "Calm down."

This ubiquitous suggestion to the anxiety-ridden passes observers' lips as if the subject would never have thought of it on their own. Further, the tone with which it's usually delivered adds insult to injury. Have you ever heard it not either being an authoritarian command or a patronizing plea? It's as if the observer can't handle the anxious person's presence, sending them the message, "I can't deal with you." Imagine being on the receiving end of that during a panic attack or when a traumatic reaction is occurring.

Source: Cottonbro/Pexels

The alternative: Though the above reflexive assertion may seem to be a logical reaction, taking the time to learn to be responsive (instead of reactive) will likely yield better results. If you are feeling riled by the person's angst, imagine what they're feeling.

Beginning by simply acknowledging the presence of high anxiety is a good starting point; e.g. "Jason, I can tell you're feeling really uneasy right now," setting a more empathic tone. Finally, being willing to assist and inquiring, "What would be helpful for you right now?" engenders a constructive, problem-solving partnership atmosphere which will likely have an anxiety-dampening effect of its own (i.e., "someone is available to help me out").

2. "Just don't think about it."

Pervasive anxiety is driven by thoughts. Phobias run on a thought loop of “this is dangerous,” worry warts jump to worst-case scenario thinking, and traumatized individuals can inadvertently be reminded of the event, flooding them with intrusive, anxiety-provoking memories.

For those who’ve never experienced such things, think back to a song you don’t like getting stuck in your head and tell yourself to “just not think about it.” It didn’t work, did it? Now, attach to that a biologically driven defense mechanism putting you on high alert, for the thought is essentially a perception of danger that feeds the survival response of being on standby for fight/flight. You can now see how it’s even harder to try to ignore something that is relentlessly knocking, both mentally and physiologically.

Telling someone to “just not think about” whatever is gnawing at them is a good recipe for irritating them further. This is because, similar to “Calm down,” if it was that simple, they’d have done it. Further, employing the term “just” makes it seem as if it is easy and that they’re flawed for not being able to do so. Consider the effect on a socially anxious person whose life revolves around the fear of scrutiny from others. Lastly, it's invalidating, in that it can imply that whatever is on their mind isn’t a big deal.

The alternative: When someone divulges a pesky thought that is attached to their anxious state, it’s better to create a dialogue around the matter, again, partnering with the individual to show support and constructively problem-solve to try to bring down the acuity. If Barbara is uncomfortable about taking a flight, for example, it’s hard for her not to think about it when her mind is consumed with thoughts of airline crashes as she worriedly counts down the hours til takeoff.

Responding with something more thoughtful can help them feel supported and empowered, assuaging their anxiety. So, for Barbara, her travel partner might say, “Barbara, I know you’re not a fan of flying, but I can’t help but recall the other times we flew together and you deplaned like nothing ever bothered you. How’d you keep it together so well?” She is reminded she has the ability to do so, and her travel partner can help her cultivate some confidence by reviewing what she did that kept her stable on other flights.

Disclaimer: The material provided in this post is for informational purposes only and not intended to diagnose, treat, or prevent any illness in readers or people they know. The information should not replace personalized care from an individual's provider or formal supervision if you’re a practitioner or student.

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