Helping someone with anxiety is surprisingly tricky, even if you have the best of intentions. Here are four things to avoid saying or doing if you want to be a supportive friend.
“It’s not a big deal.”
“You’ve got nothing to worry about.”
“It’s all in your head.”
Have people uttered phrases like these when you were anxious or worried about something? Were they helpful?
I didn’t think so.
Anxiety is such a universal phenomenon that you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who hasn’t been a nervous wreck at least sometimes in their life. In fact, about one-third of people have had an anxiety disorder at some point. This can include anxiety about a specific situation, such as having a phobia of heights, or anxiety about a lot of things, such as having generalized anxiety disorder. Some types of anxiety disorders are well-known, like social anxiety disorder—it’s easy to imagine someone who feels pathologically awkward at parties or is deathly afraid of speaking in front of a crowd. You may even be that person!
But other anxiety-related disorders are difficult for most people to relate to. Why is grandma stubbornly unwilling to throw out those old newspapers, even though they’ve piled up so much that they’re blocking the way to her bathroom? Why does my roommate jump-scare so easily, even at the slightest unexpected noise? How come my neighbor needs to check whether he locked the front door at least three times whenever he leaves the house?
Talking to someone with anxiety is not as intuitive as you may think!
This article isn't about deep-diving into the mysteries of anxiety disorders and where they come from—we'll save that for a separate discussion. Instead, we'll focus on how you, as a friend, or even a stranger, can help someone who is actively feeling the burn of anxiety.
Read on, because talking to someone with anxiety is not as intuitive as you may think! Let’s take a look at the most common things people say and do (with all the best intentions), why they’re not helpful, and what you can do instead.
1. Don't say “Just relax”
Variations of this crowd favorite include “Just calm down” and “Just breathe.”
Well, if I could, wouldn’t I have already done that?
Let’s say your roommate is looking for a job, and you find him spiraling one evening, freaking out about how he'll be unemployed forever. Automatically reaching for a phrase like “just relax” is understandable. Someone we care about—or maybe just someone we have to interact with—seems to be in a crisis. We want to turn down the heat like we would a thermostat. Perhaps the crisis doesn’t seem like that big of a deal to us. Doesn't it make sense to remind someone in distress to relax?
When people are anxious, it’s very hard to relax.
The problem is that when people are anxious, it’s very hard to relax. They're experiencing an activation of their sympathetic nervous system, also known as the fight-or-flight response. This is a very real and very urgent biological process that instantaneously raises their heart rate and adrenaline levels, tenses their muscles, and puts their senses on high alert.
The fight-or-flight mechanism is designed to override "reasonable" thinking. If a sabertooth tiger is running at you, you don't have time to reason. Eventually, the alarm system subsides. But when a person is in the throes of a fight-or-flight response, you can't just tell them to cool it. That request is nearly impossible for them to manage. You're also dismissing them. The phrase can feel condescending and—especially if it’s the first thing you say—it shows that you are not interested in understanding their experience.
What to say instead
Instead of saying “just relax,” try calmly asking an open-ended question like, “What’s on your mind?” If they’ve already told you what the anxiety is about, you can ask follow-up questions like, “What type of job are you hoping to find?" "Where have you looked?" "What do you think are your best options?” Asking questions shows that you care. It also helps to introduce some problem-solving structure and gives your friend a chance to slow down and walk through the facts.
2. Don’t say “You’ve got nothing to worry about”
“It’s not a big deal.” “It’s going to be okay.” “Trust me, you’ll look back on this and think it was silly to worry about.” "Don't worry! Your problem isn't so bad."
None of these versions of "Youv'e got nothing to worry about" are helpful. Right now, the anxious person does think their problem is a big deal, and it does truly feel bad. Besides, how do you know everything's going to be okay?
For example, maybe your 16-year-old niece is distraught because she got into a fight with her boyfriend and thinks the relationship is over. If she’s not too cut-up about it, it’s perfectly fine to reassure her that it’s normal to have disagreements in romantic relationships. She might be open to hearing that even if it is over, there are plenty of fish in the sea.
Instead of dismissing how upsetting and worrying the situation is, show empathy.
But if she's already prone to anxiety, or this event seems to have hit her particularly hard, this type of reassurance won't get through. She may very well say, “But you don’t understand! I love him, and I’ll never find anyone like him again!” Even if you disagree, think back to a time when something felt like the be-all-and-end-all for you. Were you easily persuaded otherwise?
What to say instead
Instead of dismissing how upsetting and worrying the situation is, show empathy.
You don’t need to agree with a specific prediction. (“He's going to break up with me and I’ll never find love again.”) You can show that you hear her by matching her tone and mood. (“Ugh, that sucks! It's nerve-wracking not knowing where your relationship is headed.”)
It’s important to remember that you’re not doing this to interrogate, or even to formulate advice.
And again, follow up with some open-ended questions, such as, “What was the fight about? How did you two leave things last time you talked?” It’s important to remember that you’re not doing this to interrogate, or even to formulate advice. The main thing you’re providing is a non-judgmental, willing ear, and an opportunity for her to walk through her thoughts.
3. Don't say "I've got problems, too"
Sometimes there's nothing more validating than a little bit of commiserating, a sense of camaraderie in sharing an anxiety-provoking experience. If someone seems only mildly anxious or has a good sense of humor about their situation, sharing your similar feelings can seem like a great way to ease the tension.
Be careful, however, that you're not accidentally overriding or dismissing a significant anxiety. Saying something like, "I'm worried about my upcoming colonoscopy, too" might seem like the most natural way in the world to support a friend facing a similar experience. But it's possible that your friend has serious anxiety about medical procedures that interferes with their health.
What to do instead
Focus on them for now, and use your good-listener skills to give empathy. Save your worries for another occasion, or vent to a different friend. Emotional support should definitely go both ways in a relationship, but there's a wise time and place to share your own troubles. It’s not in the middle of the other person’s panic attack.
4. Don't enable an anxiety-maintaining behavior
This one is tough, because we naturally want to help someone in distress. We’re tempted to help them by getting them out of the anxiety-provoking situation ASAP.
Maybe your friend feels awkward and terrified of mingling at parties, so you keep giving him alcohol to help him “take the edge off.” Maybe you agree to a miserable 14-hour drive for a joint family visit because your sister is afraid of flying.
Anxiety feeds off of avoidance.
I’ve certainly seen parents protectively snatch up their five-year-old when they come across a dog in the park, saying that their child is afraid of dogs. How understandable! You want to take away fear from someone you love. In this case, however, the parent’s actions are counter-productive, because parental accommodation actually increases the child’s phobia over time.
Here’s why: anxiety feeds off of avoidance.
For someone with a dog phobia, every time they run away from a dog, their phobia gets cemented a little deeper. There are two reasons for this. First, their avoidance—and your endorsement of their avoidance—teaches them that dogs are indeed dangerous and should be avoided.
Think of it from the perspective of the five-year-old. If your parent, the person you trust the most, reacts so protectively every time there's a dog around, then of course it’s clear to you that dogs are dangerous. Second, the immediate relief someone feels when they get to avoid a scary situation is so sweet, so sublime, that it reinforces the fight-or-flight reaction the body had just created. It’s like giving candy to a toddler in mid-tantrum. Why would the toddler do anything other than have a tantrum the next time they’re in the same situation—tantrums mean you get candy!
So what should you do instead of enabling avoidance? Be their cheerleader. Be gentle and firm. For example:
- “You’ve got this! I’ll introduce you to a few people and you can take it from there. You’ll do great.”
- “We can totally do this flight. It’ll feel terrible at first, but I’ll be there with you. It’ll get a lot easier after we take off. Think of how proud you’ll be of yourself!”
- “Honey, look it’s a doggie! It’s okay to be scared, but I bet he’s really nice. Let’s ask his owner if it's okay to pet him.”
Remember that it’s possible to be emotionally supportive and encourage healthy behaviors. The secret formula is to always respond to a friend’s anxiety with empathy and open-ended questions, and when it comes down to actually doing (or avoiding), holding them gently and firmly accountable. All the while, don’t compare their anxiety with your own. You may have to take one for the team right now and save your needs for another day. You’ve got this!