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What to say, and what not to say, to someone suffering from anxiety

October 10th 2016 / Anna Hunter

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A helpful anxiety phrasebook, devised by those in the know

It’s estimated that 1 in 13 people in the global population suffer from an anxiety disorder, with a recent study by academics at Cambridge University putting the figure at one in four for the UK population. The numbers look bleaker still when you consider that women are twice as likely to suffer from anxiety as men, with women in the UK under 35 in particular reporting mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, obsessional or compulsive behaviour and incidences of self-harm (shockingly, one in four of the 3,750 women who participated in a national mental health survey published by NHS Digital had inflicted self-harm). More worrying still, a large survey by the Department of Education revealed that 37% of 14 year old girls reported feeling worthless, unhappy and unable to concentrate, twice the percentage of boys the same age participating in the survey.

Clearly, the state of the nation’s, and particularly the female population’s, mental health is reaching crisis point, and as we await an upcoming mental health policy statement from the government (with a hopeful increase in funding and mental health initiatives), taking matters into our own hands could prove empowering, be it seeking treatment, or becoming more informed and aware of mental health issues, whether you’re a sufferer or not. With that in mind, we asked a group of anxiety sufferers what kind of support helps them to deal with episodes of anxiety, and what reactions definitely, er, do not. Get ready for some real talk.

What not to say

“You should…”

No, there’s no ‘should’ when it comes to anxiety. In fact knowing what I ‘should’ feel and ‘should’ do only piles the pressure on and makes me feel more anxious. Yes, I probably should take some deep breaths, or focus on something happy, but if my mind isn’t allowing me to do that then telling me what I’m thinking is wrong isn’t going to make anything better.

“Isn’t anxiety just the same as being a bit nervous?”

Yes, if being a bit nervous were to happen to you every second of every day, perhaps. Anxiety is not the same as feeling a bit worried about something - it’s a constant feeling of fear and irrationality that takes over your mind and the way you live your life.

“But what are you anxious about?”

I DON’T KNOW. The weather, the car that just drove a tiny bit too fast past me, the fact my friend has read a message but hasn’t replied, the fact I’ve read a message but haven’t replied, the thought of falling over the tube platform just as the train comes in, Brexit, this mild cold which could probably be pneumonia because isn’t that quite common? It isn’t one thought, it’s thousands, but most of all it’s just a feeling that surges up out of nowhere. There’s no rationality to it, and that’s why it’s such a bitch to suffer from.

“Try to not worry”

Sure, I'll get onto that right away! Forgive the passive aggression, but telling me to not worry does absolutely nothing for anxiety. It's like telling someone throwing up to try closing their throat. I know people mean well, but once the anxiety hits I just have to ride it out. I know it seems strange and that you’re just trying to reassure me, but telling me to relax, just be happy or similar feels like you’re discounting my experience. I wish I could just flick off the anxiety, but it’s never dissolved that easily unfortunately.

“But you don’t look ill.”

Sorry that my mental health issue isn’t expressing itself in some kind of rash or flu-like symptoms so you know to keep away, but underneath this painfully fake calm facade I’m struggling to breathe.

“You really need to sort this anxiety thing out.”

Wow, thanks for that great insight. As someone who has dealt with anxiety for a number of years on and off, I know I should probably seek more help for it (even though the first and last course of counselling didn’t help whatsoever) but having you tell me to get help makes me feel far worse, and more self conscious about how honest I am about the problem. Telling me to sort it will probably make me try to hide it even more.

“Calm down”

Don’t. Even.

“Just grin and bear it/man up/face your fear.”

Would you give someone medical advice about another ailment/ tell them to ‘man up’? I doubt it. You’d help them up the steps, carry a bag or get them lunch. Do the same when you know someone is suffering from anxiety. Small gestures and acknowledgments are far preferable to giving someone ‘advice’ or a supposed reality check. Try asking me what I’m fearing, rather than commanding us not to be afraid.

“Ugh anxiety is such a millennial problem/everyone has it these days.”

A bit reductive. Not helpful.

“Have you ever thought about why you get anxious? I bet if you think about it you can work out why and make it go away.”

It’s highly likely I’ve already spent many an hour musing on this one, believe me. Still nothing.

“It’s all in your head.”

Technically, yes, but have you felt my facing pulse, experienced my nausea or noticed my profuse sweating? That’s not even the half of it, and my physical symptoms fuel the psychological stress. This anxiety business is all consuming.

“Just be grateful for what you have, it could be worse.”

Gratitude is important as ‘feels’ go, but this feels judgey, and also loads on the guilt and shame for me feeling this way, which inevitably makes me feel far, far worse than I already do. This is already playing on my mind, please don’t echo it back.

“Is it me? Have I done something?”

I know I’m behaving oddly, and it’s understandable that you’re trying to work out the trigger of my anxiety, but please don’t take it personally. It’s another guilt trigger that amplifies anxiety as I feel that I’ve upset you, and that’s the last thing I wanted.

“Just smile, you’ll feel better.”

It sucks, but I can’t pretend this isn’t happening and fake it until I ‘make it’. I’ll come round, but this piles on the pressure to put a brave face on, which just masks the problem. Plus, along the lines of the ‘bitchy resting face’ jibe, it seems to be women that are on the receiving end of this ‘keeping up appearances’ type of comment, which doesn’t sit well. Basically, it ironically makes you feel like scowling more than ever, which isn’t progress for anyone.

“Here, have this wine.”

So admittedly this has in fact helped in the past, but as a coping strategy, it’s not a healthy one for obvious reasons. There’s a time and a place for a cheering tipple, but I know that in the long-run it amplifies my anxiety, even though it may appear to temporarily ease it.

What to actually say instead

“What can I do?”

This is the loveliest thing that anyone can say, even if I don’t really know the answer. It shows that you don’t presume to know what’s going on in my head, or judge me for being a bit ridiculous, which in itself makes me feel less anxious about being anxious.

“This isn’t your fault.”

This definitely goes some way to taking away the guilt, fear and self-blame that’s mingled into my anxiety.

“No pressure, just let me know.”

When feeling anxious about EVERY SINGLE THING, being overwhelmed by people requesting your attention and time is exhausting and simply adds to the problem. Distractions are great, but sometimes you just need to sit back, switch off, and, for want of a less sickening word, exercise some ‘self care’. Letting me get back to you in my own time is a massive help.

“You are fine.”

In the midst of an anxiety attack, sometimes you just need someone to say out loud that you’re actually, medically, okay, even if you don’t feel it (the opposite being someone who is frantically trying to find things to ‘fix’ you). Patience is the ultimate virtue in dealing with someone who is feeling anxious - a bit of time to recover from whatever our brain is telling us will usually do the trick.

“Let’s go for a walk.”

Sometimes, I need to be nudged to get up and get out into the fresh air rather than staying cooped up in the safe comfort zone of my house. Getting rid of some of the adrenaline with a brisk walk, preferably somewhere green and peaceful (I find being near water makes me feel calm) where I can talk a little without looking someone directly in the eye is often the best medicine. A change of environment can help to shift an emotional state and break a pattern, and any movement of the body can also help as anxiety or panic usually leads a person to breathing in a shallow way and becoming rigid in their physiology. Connecting with the body and becoming more mindful of the present helps to alleviate an attack.

“Have you thought about seeing your doctor?”

Conversely to ‘fixing’ me as mentioned above, gently suggesting a trip to the GP is supportive and potentially needed; it took me a long time to realise I could actually look into treating my anxiety rather than just living with it every day. Asking, rather than telling, helps to show you care but also doesn’t push me into something I’m not ready for.

“Today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday.”

My boyfriend, who suffers from depression and anxiety, told me that this statement makes him feel calmer and more in control. Basically, it makes him feel like he can handle it, which encourages him to think positively and acknowledge that he is resourceful, and that episodes of anxiety will pass.

If you suffer from anxiety, what can other people do to help? Comment below or tweet us @GetTheGloss

If you’re suffering from anxiety and are in need of support, see our SOS page and get in touch with Anxiety UK

Follow Anna on Instagram @annyhunter


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