Don’t Say This to A Person Affected by Anxiety

December 18, 2019
Often, people don't know what to say to a person affected by anxiety. What if you showed empathy instead of offering advice to begin with? This is because closeness and understanding are always a good start.
What do you say to someone affected by anxiety? How do you react to that loved one who’s about to have a panic attack? People are quick to tell them to “calm down” and not to worry. But the effect of such words on them will be the opposite of what you expect. Yes, even if you have their best interest at heart.
Anxiety isn’t something a person can control at will. This is because the anxious brain is different. There’s no on/off button. In fact, the mechanism is a lot more subtle. Thus, the only thing you do with such advice is to pressure them further and make them uncomfortable.
Albert Ellis, in his book How to Make Yourself Happy, points out that anxiety is a form of mental anguish. It’s quite intense and devastating and completely limits human potential. Now, an interesting thing here is that the first step to better manage it is not to block it but to accept its presence. This is because emotional pain is another part of who people are, and nobody is exempt from it.
Thus, when confronted with a person affected by anxiety, try to not tell them to relax. Don’t tell them not to get so obsessed and to stop worrying. Particularly, don’t tell them that what they feel isn’t real. These sorts of phrases will only block communication. Thus, you won’t hear an accurate account of what’s happening to them.
A seemingly anxious man.

Don’t tell someone affected by anxiety not to worry

A person affected by anxiety would love to calm down. If there’s something they would like to do, is to stop feeling that pain in their stomach. Why would anybody want to feel muscular tension and tachycardia? The rumble of disturbing thoughts so difficult to control isn’t a good feeling. So, people who go through this psychological reality often feel they are about to have a heart attack. Either that or about to lose it.
Thus, telling someone with anxiety not to worry is like telling a drowning person to get out of the water. They can’t help it and, in reality, they need a more valid kind of help from you. There’s something else you must take into account: anxiety often appears without warning. So, it isn’t necessary to be under stress in a tough situation.
In fact, the anxiety demon arises in the most innocuous and unsuspected situations. And when it happens, it’s quite common for someone close to them to insist that there’s nothing to worry about. That everything is alright and they’re doing it to themselves.
As you can see, such suggestions only worsen the situation.

Less advice and more empathy

Don’t tell a person with anxiety not to worry. Also, don’t tell them to relax and to wake up and smell the coffee. Don’t do any of these two things for a simple reason. Because the captive brain of anxiety won’t listen as is on alert mode. It’s unable to process orders, suggestions and well-meaning advice. If you do, you’ll soon realize the uselessness of your advice. Because, if there’s something an anxious person does expect, it’s your empathy.
The best course of action sometimes is to say nothing. It’s enough to be there for them and let them know they can count on you for whatever they need. There’ll soon be a chance to look for suitable strategies. But sometimes it’s best to be someone’s beacon of light. To be a fortress of balance before those who deal with their tides, crises, and storms.
A study conducted by the psychopharmacology department of the University of Chemin de Ronde, in Paris, says that the brain of a person with anxiety is under the control of cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine. They say it’s very difficult to think in such a state, so any advice under these circumstances is of little use.
A concerned man.

What to tell someone with anxiety?

If you’re wondering what a good thing to say to someone with anxiety is, the answer is simple: say less, do more. Rather than giving well-meaning advice, observe and be near. Try to understand what they’re going through. Understand, more than anything, that there are many types of anxiety. That what’s appropriate for one person may not be for another.
Thus, the best thing to do is to ask things such as “How can I help you?” or “I know you’re under stress right now and it seems you can’t control it, so let’s breathe together in the meantime”. It’s sometimes enough for a person to have a close, serene, and reassuring presence. Later, you might be able to help them seek help, but in the meantime, know how to be and give affection and empathy. It’s easier than it seems.
  • Millan, M. J. (2003). The neurobiology and control of anxious states. Progress in Neurobiology. Elsevier Ltd.