3 Helpful and 3 Unhelpful Things You Can Say to People Suffering from Anxiety

anxious woman

(Image/Verywell Health)

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from my friend and colleague, Jenee Day.

Jenee is a long-time anxiety sufferer who now shares her experiences in an effort to help others via her podcast, YouTube channel, and through her coaching and writing. Jenee is the author of “Fear Itself: How Battling Anxiety Brought Me Inner Peace.”

The Fear Itself podcast is also available now on most podcast platforms. 

It’s 2 a.m.

My heart is racing and I shoot out of bed, unable to sit still. My breathing is ragged. My skin feels clammy to the touch.

Wild-eyed and frantic, I pace my bedroom. Back and forth and back and forth, squeezing my eyes shut tightly in the hope that if I just ignore this feeling, it will go away. It doesn’t.

What is happening?  Why do I feel this way?  How can I make it stop?

For someone who clings to the illusion of control in my everyday life, this is my worst fear being realized. Last night, everything was fine. And tonight, I opened the door to my closet to find that there really is a boogeyman. I feel ashamed. Guilty. Broken.

After an hour or so of pacing with no end in sight, I know I need to wake my husband. I need help, but I am terrified to ask for it. I am afraid he’ll think I’m crazy. I’m afraid he might be angry. I’m afraid he might leave me because of my sudden—maybe permanent—break.

Neither of us knows it yet, but how he responds in this moment of crisis will be critical to my suffering and my recovery.

How do we love others well when they suffer from anxiety?

If you are in a relationship with someone who suffers from anxiety, it can be difficult to know what to say.

Here are phrases that were not helpful (even insulting) when I was having an anxiety attack. I strongly encourage you to avoid saying them if you genuinely want to help.

 

, and some that I found to be hugely supportive and encouraging.

3 Things You Should Never Say to Someone Feeling Anxious

1. ‘Everything happens for a reason.’

I don’t like this one because it’s so trite and dismissive. What’s the follow-up to this? What possible reason could explain what is happening right now? Simply put, it is not helpful and it is not true.

2. ‘Just calm down.’

This probably doesn’t require much explanation for those who have anxiety.

For everyone else, I’ll explain in two points: 1.) If it were that simple, I’d have already done it and, 2.) Anxiety really has nothing to do with calmness. The logical brain already KNOWS that nothing is going on, but the logical brain isn’t driving the bus here. Telling someone to “calm down” trivializes pain and sounds condescending. No one needs that.

3. ‘You just need to have faith.’

A phrase that still rouses rage when I hear it.

When a “friend” said this to me, I felt like she thought my panic attacks were my fault; suggesting that if my faith in God was strong enough, I wouldn’t be panicking.

It was confusing and hurtful, and made me question a lot of things I thought were true about myself and about my creator. In hindsight, I can see that this person had her own issues to sort through and was projecting judgment on me, but at the time I was crushed and bewildered, thinking that I was somehow not doing Christianity the right way or with enough sincerity.

In reality, I was more sincere and more of a truth seeker than I had ever been. Bottom line: This is just a mean thing to say. Please don’t ever blame someone for their trauma.

3 Helpful Things You Can Say to Someone Suffering from Anxiety

Most people out there with loved ones suffering with mental illness do genuinely want to help.

Here are examples of things you can ask or say that are actually helpful.

1. ‘How can I help?’

This question is great, because it removes any pressure. An open question like this gives me—or the anxiety suffer—the power, and a little bit of a voice in a situation where I (or they) feel like no one can hear us. Sometimes, the only thing I need is for someone to listen.

2. ‘My sister/brother/uncle/dog walker had anxiety.’

Absolutely, positively, tell me all the stories and bestow on me ALL the knowledge.

Researching during The Terror was a daunting task. I would listen to anything anyone had to tell me about anxiety cures. I don’t think that all people suffer from anxiety for the same reasons or due to the same triggers, but I am always willing to try something to find out what works for me. It may be something I can add to my anti-anxiety arsenal.

Relating someone else’s struggles, successes, and methods of coping are always appreciated.

3. ‘Yes.’

Just say yes.

This was one of the most helpful and selfless acts my husband could do for me on a daily basis.

If I asked him to drive me around and look at houses all day (because it calmed me), he said yes. No matter what the request he said yes. He even got us cable TV, which we didn’t have previously, because having the local news made me feel like I had a connection to the outside world.

It may sound silly, but it made sense to me at the time, and it made me feel less trapped. So he said yes and made it happen.

Similarly, my dad said yes when I wanted to sit in his living room and rock in his rocking chair until midnight because I was afraid to be home alone. My stepmom said yes countless times when I needed company, allowing me to pace in her sewing shop for hours while she worked. She said yes to FaceTime chats and yes to bike rides.

When lack of control is a trigger, allowing an anxious person to make small decisions—what to eat for lunch, whether to drive to the store—can help us feel steadier on our feet.

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19 thoughts on “3 Helpful and 3 Unhelpful Things You Can Say to People Suffering from Anxiety

  1. Louie says:

    Matt….and of course Jenee, I tell you how thankful I am for this post. Our daughter suffers from panic attacks and we were clueless as to how to help her. I will in turn show this to her husband to give him better insight as well . The internet is full of advise for coping and helping but I’m doubtful the postings come from actual sufferers. I will try to guide my daughter to the podcasts….Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

    • gottmanfan says:

      Louie,

      Someone I love has panic disorder. Debilitating panic attacks for years.

      In their case, they have made a remarkable recovery with good Cognitive Behavioral Therapist with mindfulness exercises to aid in destressing the body and some SSRI medications.

      Anxiety is very treatable with the right interventions. That’s the good news! I am so much better now than at my worst. (Anxiety wise anyway 😜) I still work on it.

      Your daughter is lucky to have such supportive parents. That goes a long way. ❤️

      Like

  2. Everything happens for a reason has always been a trigger phrase for me, even when my panic attacks are under control. I blew up at friend one time when she used it when I was talking about my boyfriend, as in “You wouldn’t have met him if you were still married!” She thought she was being helpful. I let her know she wasn’t. Then apologized for yelling at her.

    Like

  3. “Everything happens for a reason” and it’s equally unhelpful “everything will turn out like it’s supposed to..”
    They are my all time favorite to hate. ;)

    I’ve worked through anxiety a lot in my life, and even have had times of feeling power of it (yay!). I can identify it a little easier when it pops up.
    Knowing what it is can be helpful for me.

    To bring up something Matt mentioned in the last post …how losing everything frees you from the anxiety of losing everything…I have to agree. Nothing is a firm ground to start from. I feel like I’ve spent a good portion of my life with much less fear because I’d had little to lose in the first place.
    Now that I “have more”, and life seems easier and nicer, Panic is way more present.
    It’s like when Brené Brown talks about being afraid to feel joy because youre afraid it will be ripped away.
    It has come up 2 or 3 times, where my thoughts can’t get out of “what if” and my heart will start beating fast.
    The last time, I even imagined my student spreading rumors about me and my work performance.
    Ack!
    I know it’s insane!
    But that’s anxiety.

    It’s a real thing, even though it feels far away sometimes.
    I battled it this weekend by taking myself roller skating.
    (Getting out, enjoying something active and novel…)

    If all else fails and I end up homeless, I can still roller skate.

    Take that anxiety! : P !

    Like

  4. Linda says:

    Thank you Matt, this is a needed article. Not only for those who want to help, but also for those who experience anxiety and don’t really know how to ask for help. As the later, I am going to print out this article and shove it in the face of those around me (and by ‘shove’ I mean gently and lovingly suggest a reading selection of course) especially when I’m so anxious that I cant string a sentence together. Jenee, thank you for organizing the words to describe what is helpful and what is not. I laughed in recognition of the the “don’ts” because i have experienced this, and it’s some kind of macabre relief to know that someone else has too. Lastly I’ll include this, if you take a big breath and slowly let it out while you let your voice go so low that it vibrates… kind of like a deep groan, it can be soothing. I only learned later that it slows heart rate and blood pressure by stimulating the vagus nerve.

    Like

  5. P.S. – Jenee, thank you for writing this and being a voice in the world.
    I work in the “helping profession”, but at times feel very limited in truly being effective – usually created by the “profession” part of “the helping profession”. Because of the time constraints, because of the number of people served , etc. it can be difficult to truly make a difference in someone’s life.
    But I try- …we try. Grateful you are a part of that- I’m grateful that you demonstrate that anxiety doesn’t have to disable you.
    Can you share your story a little bit?
    Do you feel like you’ve overcome it, or are there times you still struggle?
    Do you feel like it’s possoble for everyone to overcome anxiety?
    Do you feel like there was a miracle of sorts in your story? (And again, is that possible for everyone?)
    🙏 Thank you for your time reading this :).
    Hope you have a great day!

    Like

  6. gottmanfan says:

    I was listening to a Fresh Air podcast today about research of children who are on a spectrum of “orchids” and “dandelions”

    The “orchid” kids, because of a biological predisposition to become emotionally stressed in bad and even good changes, need extra care to thrive.

    Even the best of intentioned advice and “just push yourself” interventions can be the wrong thing to do and make things worse. Adding unhealthy judgment and shame.

    That’s imho how severe anxiety is.

    Orchids can be a strong and beautiful thing. They need the right understanding and help to grow strong.

    Like

    • gottmanfan says:

      I say this as someone who suffered severely from anxiety and who got a lot of the “just have faith” “just get out there” thrown at me.

      People often just don’t relate to severe anxiety or understand how harmful that is to approach it with tough love.

      I have worked VERY hard to get better. And to help my “orchid” kids have a different environment then I did.

      Helping and loving people with anxiety (including yourself) requires different kinds of attitudes and behavior than people who are predisposed to be “dandelions.” A lot of kindness goes a long way.

      Like

    • gottmanfan says:

      Here is a link to an article about the book cause you know I can’t resist throwing info out there into the WordPress void😜

      https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/articles/201901/orchids-and-dandelions

      Like

      • gottmanfan says:

        “A minority of children—about one in five—show an exceptional susceptibility to both negative and positive social contexts, with stress response circuits highly sensitive to adverse events.

        Like orchids, which require very particular, supportive environments to thrive, these children show an exceptional capacity for succeeding in nurturant, supportive circumstances, but sustain disproportionate numbers of illnesses and problems when raised in stressful, adverse social conditions. We think of these as orchid children.”

        Like

        • I’m trying to decide if I’m an orchid or a dandelion.

          I think like with most things, things aren’t black and white. There may be degrees in which someone can tolerate certain things over others.

          I had severe social anxiety. I consider it severe…the ages between 17-27 were very lonely because it was so hard to talk to people. I worked at really crappy places because I hated job interviews and would only apply to places I knew would hire you on the spot.
          I still had this fear recently, but I was able to fake it for most of the interview ( really, thank goodness I work with psych people. They can see and diagnose my BS before I even know it’s showing..;)).

          Even though the anxiety was severe for me, I also credit all of my strengths to the “tough love” of having no recourse but to move forward and take care of myself.

          To be clear, it didn’t help my social anxiety directly,
          But it allowed me to use parts of myself and grow parts of myself I never would have otherwise.
          Actually, O-my goodness, I remember being a corpsman in the navy- trying to help patients do this or that, while simultaneously not wanting to speak at all, and very much wanting to not be seen. Red cheeks and sweating for no apparent reason. Ug!
          I can’t say those experiences immediately felt helpful, but I can say they became easier.

          My larger point was, though, that even if the “tough love” didn’t magically make me less anxious, it made me more resilient in other ways.

          The anxiety did begin to subside, but that was through trusted social connection- by having some orchid tolerant conditions.

          In the end I think I’m a dandelion, but have been lucky enough to have some orchid privileges.

          I haven’t read the article, but did read your quote…
          About how the orchid like children will suffer illness and problems in disproportionate numbers if raised in adverse environments..
          I’m reading some material on resilience and why some children seem to have it and others don’t. According to it,
          There are genetics involved.
          It’s not just about “personality”…there is a biological basis for a lot of it.
          Thank you for sharing the article..I’ll go check it out.

          Like

          • gottmanfan says:

            The article is an interesting read if you have time later.

            Dandelions are those who can endure all kinds of trauma and bounce back fairly easily. On the extreme end those are the people who can be neglected, raised in poverty, abused etc and can still be mentally healthy. But as you said it’s a spectrum.

            The key imho is to not use dandelions to compare and beat up orchids. They have pros and cons and different needs.

            Liked by 1 person

            • I can agree- orchids are no less important, valuable or worthy.
              Unfortunately, people with particular needs can often be treated as an inconvenience or unreasonable.
              We really can’t judge the the experience of anyone else.
              …the point to any of this is learning how to function in the world with what we’ve got. And to use the tools /environments needed to promote optimal functioning.

              Liked by 1 person

  7. gottmanfan says:

    I can’t help to relate the topic of anxiety back to the topic of relationships.

    People differ in how their nature/nurture preferences to regulate their nervous systems. If I feel calmer and peaceful with a lot of planned certainty and routines and an uncluttered environment and I have a partner who prefers spontaneity and likes a lot of stuff and novelty that will crank up anxiety/discomfort for both of us as we try to get the other person to change so we can feel less stressed and “normal”. It’s hard to be kind and generous when your body is flooded with stress hormones.

    Of course few people are conscious of it in those terms. We just think the other person is wrong. When it’s a style difference.

    Like

  8. Jaime says:

    I had severe anxiety in my early 20s and the best thing for me was having my sister to call during the attacks. She, too suffers from anxiety so she understood exactly what was happening to me each time. All she had to do was answer the phone and I’d ask her to just talk. She would talk about anything – what she had for breakfast, something funny that happened recently, a good book she read – and just getting out of my own panicked head would bring me back to the present non-scary reality.

    My lovey, Summer (7), shows signs of anxiety in moments of being tested – timed tests at school, taking a swimming test, even apps that have games that are timed. Last summer she actually chose to not take the swim test at camp and just be in the “red” zone where she had to stay in the shallow end despite the fact that she is a strong swimmer and could have easily tested into the “green” (having access to the whole pool). She chose to tell me and hide it from her dad. When he found out, he was extremely mad and told her she had to take it the next day (which she didn’t and she hid that from him as well). He pushes her to do the things she is uncomfortable with, I on the other hand, understand the anxiety and the paralyzing feelings that anxiety brings so I don’t push her to “just calm down” or “have faith” or “just do it”. With anxiety, it doesn’t work that way. To me, when you suffer from anxiety disorder, along with developing coping skills, there’s also nothing wrong with avoiding anxiety triggers if one can help it.

    My panic attacks almost always happened when I was driving, more often in traffic. I saw a therapist for a few years and he helped me cope by sitting in my passenger seat while I drove around for an hour twice a week. First on side streets, then on busier streets, then on the highway – all to get me to face the fear of potentially having a panic attack and realizing I’d be ok. BUT he still didn’t ever push me past my comfort zone. If there was traffic, he’d have me chose a different route. If I started getting the feeling of an attack coming on, we’d pull over if I needed to. He eased me into it, it wasn’t forced, there was no “just do it”. And eventually I was driving my car with him in the car behind me, and then eventually I was ok on my own. Coping, plus avoiding extreme triggers when possible, worked wonders for me. Even to this day 20 years later, if I start to feel even a hint of panic in the car, I pretend that the person behind me is just a friend following me and they are there if I need them. It helps.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I forget says:

    Anxiety stinks. It can crush and debilitate the hardiest of souls. Like depression or other problems, it can also sap those around you. Spouses and children in particular.

    So please, afterward, please devote some time and attention to those who had a front row seat and who may have found themselves carting the entire load without their usual teammate. It’s tiresome being the reliable partner whose mental well-being and consistency is both needed and downplayed. Comments like, “Oh, well, you will never understand how much I suffer!” don’t strengthen the relationship.

    Like

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