Anxiety and the experience of it is a normal, even helpful or adaptive, part of life. Long ago, we developed the ability to feel anxious because it was necessary and advantageous from an evolutional standpoint. It all goes back to“fight or flight”: if a wild animal was about to attack us or the tribe, we would feel a surge of anxiety and stress hormones through our bodies and we would mobilize to either go on the defensive (fight) or run away (flight). If we did not have this mechanism, and instead remained calm in the face of a severe threat, we would not have survived as a species for very long. Anxiety is also a useful motivator to get us to complete important tasks and may even serve as an indicator that we need to pay closer attention to something in our lives. However, most of the threats we face on a daily basis these days are not the life-or-death kind that our ancestors faced. And yet, millions of Americans struggle with anxiety disorders, impacting their daily lives in a variety of ways.
It can be difficult to know when someone is anxious and even more difficult to know what to do or say in an effort to show support. Many of our clients tell us things their families or friends say in an effort to assuage their anxiety that are distinctly unhelpful. Sometimes these statements do more harm than good. Here are a few examples of what NOT to say:
Telling someone who’s anxious to “calm down” is like telling someone with epilepsy to “stop seizing.” Your loved one isn’t anxious just because. No one consciously chooses to have an anxiety disorder, and if they were able to control their anxiety, they would. Telling someone to “calm down” invalidates their experience and implies that they are in fact deciding to have anxiety. What would be better, instead, is to simply ask your loved one what you can do to support them. This is a good conversation to have when things are calm and relaxed, rather than springing it on them when they’re in a heightened state of anxiety.
If someone is worrying about something, it’s clearly important to them. It is not your decision what constitutes a “big deal” to someone else. The issue may seem relatively minor to you, but to them, it’s major. Again, it can be helpful to remind yourself that anxiety disorders are not a choice. Sometimes people with anxiety rationally know that their fears are unrealistic or unlikely to occur. However, part of the anxiety disorder is the difficulty stopping or interrupting the anxious and catastrophic thoughts that are arising in the mind. According to HealthyPlace.com, “Living with anxiety is like being followed by a voice. It knows all your insecurities and uses them against you. It gets to the point where it’s the loudest voice in the room, the ONLY one you can hear.” So, instead of weighing in with your opinion on whether your loved one should be anxious about a particular issue, listen to their feelings and concerns in a compassionate and empathic manner.