What to say to someone suffering with an anxiety disorder

Most of us will experience periods of heightened stress and anxiety in our lives, but for some, they experience significant levels of anxiety on a daily basis for weeks or even months at a time.  Living with an anxiety disorder can be extremely isolating with those around you unsure what to say or do.  Some walk on eggshells, afraid to “set you off” whilst others may distance themselves completely.  Those that do stay close may even get frustrated or angry simply because they don’t understand the significance of what you are experiencing.    

Whilst it’s often advised that opening up to people about our struggles is the most effective way to heal, it can be easy to say the wrong thing.  If you have a loved one suffering from an anxiety disorder, it is important to show your support and acceptance. Being there for them is the best way to begin healing and this can make a big difference in their recovery.

Here are common statements that you may think are helping your loved one, but may actually be hurting them and what you could say instead.

Don’t say, “Everything will be OK”. Instead try, “I am here for you. I will support you”.

Whilst saying “everything will be ok” may sound reassuring, it actually communicates that not only do you not understand the significance of their experience, but also that you aren’t prepared to listen to them or help them.  Having someone close who they know they can rely on to listen, understand and support them unconditionally is a huge advantage for someone with an anxiety disorder.   

Don’t say, “It’s all in your head”. Instead try, “Let’s go have some fun”.

Saying “It’s all in your head”, like the previous statement is very dismissive of their experience.  Although the truth is the anxiety is a creation of their own mind, the statement suggests that they can control what is happening to them.  This puts more pressure on their emotions and often making the anxiety worse.  Engaging in physical activities such as walking or yoga can help to ease the physical symptoms of anxiety whilst doing something fun and enjoyable can counteract some of the negative messages in their minds, even if that is just for a short time.

Don’t say, “What do you have to be anxious about?” Instead try, “How can I help you feel less stressed?”

This statement suggests your friend doesn’t deserve to feel anxious which often then compounds the issue for them as they then feel guilty about feeling anxious.  It is important to assume you don’t know everything that is going on in their life. Rather than comment on what you know or think is happening, simply offer a helping hand. Show you are there for them.  This may be helping them with practical tasks or responsibilities, even if that’s just picking up a few item of shopping for them.  It may be just listening to them, or maybe be just being there to offer moral support. 

Don’t say, “There are people with worse problems”. Instead try, “I’m sorry, do you need to talk?”

Generally, people experiencing anxiety will know other people have problems too, but they do not need to feel guilty about what they are going through. The most important thing you can do for your friend is to be encouraging, supportive and non-judgemental.

 

If you suspect that a friend or loved one is experiencing a protracted and severe state of anxiety, it is important they seek professional help either from their GP or from a trained counsellor or psychotherapist.  Even when under these professionals though, they will still need your help and support.  Even though you may find it difficult or frustrating to deal with a friend with an anxiety disorder, remember you can step away from it at the end of the day, whereas they cannot.