7 Unhelpful Pieces Of "Advice" People Have Given Me For Dealing With Anxiety
As someone who has lived with anxiety disorder for most of my life, I can say that the support of family and friends has been invaluable. I used to be secretive about the issue and only discuss it in therapy, before having my meds filled by a psychiatrist and heading home; since opening up, I've received support, love, and thoughtful questions about what it feels like. Many friends have also wanted to talk about coping strategies and what they can do when I'm going through a rough patch or having a panic attack, so I've received many kind words, thoughtful questions, and suggestions. But I've also received a few pieces of "advice" for how to deal with my anxiety — and not only are these suggestions unhelpful, but they can also be harmful.
The following pieces of advice, although they are often well-intentioned, can come across as insensitive or condescending to people struggling with anxiety. It's important to be cognizant of the fact that anxiety disorder isn't a choice — and it's not as though we can wish away our racing thoughts and cure ourselves if we just try hard enough. It's a psychological condition and we're not making it up to get attention. The feelings are all too real — everyone who has experienced an anxiety disorder can certainly attest to that. When giving advice to a person with anxiety disorder, it's important to remember that they have an illness. So you're not simply talking to a friend who happens to be uncharacteristically stressed out for a specific reason — rather, you're talking to a person who lives in a constant state of anxiety, stress, and dread.
If you have a friend or loved one who struggles with anxiety, here are seven examples of decidedly unhelpful advice.
1. "Just Avoid What Gives You Anxiety"
Depending on what specifically triggers a person's anxiety, this could basically translate to "avoid your life and hide in your apartment all day." (Something that's decidedly tempting for people with anxiety.) It's been proven that simply avoiding a triggering situation only makes anxiety disorder worse and reinforces the fears. We can only avoid professional and personal obligations for so long — and a pattern of avoidance will make the situation much more difficult when it becomes unavoidable.
2. "Calm Down & Think About The Situation Logically"
This is one of the most frustrating pieces of advice I've ever received, because it comes off as condescending and invalidating. People with anxiety aren't unintelligent — we're well aware that our fears are often irrational and that's exactly why anxiety disorder is an illness. When people say tell me that I'm being illogical and unreasonable, what I hear is "wow, you're not even aware your fears are irrational." Trust me, I'm painfully aware. In fact, one of the most frustrating things about living with anxiety is knowing that my thoughts are illogical but still not being able to stop the feelings that come along with these thoughts.
3. "Have A Drink — It'll Take The Edge Off"
Sure, it'll take the edge off in the moment. On a rough night after work, at a stressful family gathering, or any other anxiety-inducing situation, a drink or two can make things better at the time. But, studies have shown that people who self-medicate with alcohol or drugs are more likely to have their anxiety disorder worsen. So, this is the last coping mechanism that anyone should resort to. It's an easy piece of advice to give, but try to dig deeper and help your loved one identify healthy coping mechanisms that will help ease their anxiety in the long-term.
4. "You Really Don't Have Anything To Worry About Because You Have A Great Life"
This particular piece of advice is tough to hear, because it makes me feel guilty and as though I'm ungrateful for the blessings I do have. I'm fully aware and grateful that I have a really great life — I love my job, my city, and I have amazing family and friends. My anxiety disorder doesn't mean that I believe myself to be living a horrible life where I'm constantly being thrown into unfair situations. Like everyone else in the world, I've had certain instances of misfortune — but I'm aware that, overall, I have it pretty darn good.
However, people with anxiety disorder are plagued with constant, persistent worries about many aspects of our lives. I understand that these concerns don't equal suffering — but for someone with anxiety disorder, these fears snowball faster than you can believe. For example, I'll go from worrying about being a little short on cash one month to being convinced that I'll be living on the street in a year or two. I'll reflect back on action that I perceive as embarrassing, and conclude that my friends will never invite me anywhere again. The racing thoughts are incredibly difficult to control.
5. "Take Your Mind Off It"
It's really, really hard to take your mind off anxiety. It can be helpful to get out and do something relaxing with friends — but the racing thoughts don't just go away. Trust me, if I could take my mind off it, I'd seize the opportunity. Again, this is an inadvertently condescending piece of advice — if I could take my mind of a stressor, I would have done so immediately. If a piece of advice sounds super obvious to you, it's safe to assume that it's something we've already thought of a million times.
6. "Everyone Gets Stressed Out — Don't Take Everything So Seriously"
Fact: everyone gets stressed out, and for good reason. I think most people would agree that life is stressful, and even the most mentally healthy people experience stress. But, there's a major difference between feeling temporarily stressed about one particular situation and suffering from anxiety disorder.
Anxiety is more than simply feeling "stressed" — it's a condition that causes us to panic, lose sleep, and experience physical pain because we're so wrapped up in what we fear may happen. And it's not temporary — it's something we live with every day that can be triggered by seemingly small or inconsequential circumstances. This advice implies that, unlike those who don't have anxiety disorder, we're simply too weak to handle the stressful aspects of life.
7. "What's The Worst That Could Happen?"
This casual question is a probably a good way to put things in perspective to someone who's stressed out for reasons that are unrelated to anxiety disorder. But, please, please don't ask this question to a person with anxiety. Personally, it will send me down a rabbit hole of thoughts that concludes with me failing at my job, failing at life, having no friends, and being doomed to a life of misery. This casual phrase is the last thing you want to say to a person with anxiety — because, trust me, we'll come up with about 50 worst case scenarios within five minutes.