I’ve written quite a few articles about anxiety, and I’ve been managing my own anxiety for a long time. If extensive research and my own experiences have taught me anything, it’s that anxiety doesn’t work in the exact same way for any of us. The coping methods I rely on when I’m feeling anxious (like exercise and spending time in nature) might send someone else with anxiety straight into a panic attack. Anxiety comes in a wide variety of disorders, phobias, triggers, and intensity levels. That said, I think it’s safe to say that I know a thing or two about what people with anxiety are tired of hearing.
Whether someone is dealing with generalized anxiety disorder, (GAD) social anxiety, panic disorder, or a mixture of all three, I don’t think anyone with anxiety likes being told that they “worry too much.” I also can’t imagine meeting an anxious person who enjoys hearing, for the hundredth time, that they “just need to relax.” Comments like these aren’t helpful or necessary — they’re redundant, and they’re pretty condescending.
So if you want to be supportive of someone who’s anxious, please stop saying these things to people with anxiety.
"You Worry Too Much"
Just because this comment might be factual doesn't mean it needs to be said. In my experience, no matter how kind a person's tone is when they say this crap to me, it pretty much always feels like they're passing judgement. While people with anxiety arguably do worry too much, worry and anxiety aren't actually the same thing. I have worried intensely about final exams, job interviews, and meeting deadlines — but pretty much everyone worries about those kinds of things. Anxiety is inherently different than worry, because it's irrational, nearly-constant, and frequently debilitating.
Even on my best days, I still have anxiety — it's just not so overwhelming that I can't work or enjoy my down time. On other days, my anxiety can leave me feeling unsafe, restless, and totally worthless, no matter what I do. Anxiety doesn't always make sense, whereas worry can usually be linked to something stressful that's going on in a person's life. So in addition to being unnecessary, this comment can be really frustrating to hear because it inaccurately suggests that worrying a lot is same thing as battling an anxiety disorder.
Most people tell their anxious loved ones to relax because they genuinely think it will help them chill out, but it rarely works like that. If anxious people could relax on command, we would. No matter what tone you use, telling an anxious person to relax is usually pointless. Plus, it almost always feels condescending.
If you really want to help an anxious person calm down, encourage them to take a few slow breaths with you, or let them hold your hand for a little bit. It might not work entirely, but it will probably help them somewhat. One thing's for sure — it's definitely more effective than just telling them to "relax."
"I Never Feel Anxious Because..."
I don't have a problem with people telling me that they never feel anxious. Really, that's fine to say. If I woke up 100-percent free of anxiety tomorrow, I'd shout it from the figurative rooftops. However, when someone tells me they never feel anxious because they "just don't worry that much," or because "they've grown out of it," that bothers me a little bit. Intentionally or not, comments like these perpetuate the idea that anxiety is a choice or a phase rather than a legitimate illness, which simply isn't true. It's been scientifically proven that people wth anxiety literally see the world differently. On top of that, recent research suggests that anxiety is hereditary.
"The Bible Says..."
Let me be clear, the Bible does have some comforting things to say about worry and fear. When I was a kid, I had Psalm 121 dog-eared in my Bible because it helped me feel safe, and it was the first thing I'd read when my anxiety kept me from sleeping at night. Even though I'm very agnostic these days, I still find comfort in certain passages of scripture.
That said, scriptures are often misused or misquoted in a way that condemns people with anxiety and other mental illnesses. When I was growing up in the Church, I remember being told that my anxiety was a sinful habit that needed to be broken. I also remember being told that my anxiety was the direct result of demons messing with my brain. My experience isn't that unique, either. Though the Church appears to be making progress in this area, a 2014 study showed that almost half of evangelical Christians believe mental illnesses can be cured with Bible study and prayer alone. Speaking as someone who spent years trying out that very cure, I can tell you from experience that it doesn't work for everyone.
Even though so many Christians are genuinely caring people who sincerely want to help their anxious loved ones, the Church just doesn't have the greatest track record when it comes to supporting marginalized groups, including the mentally ill. Unfortunately, this can make it really difficult for atheists, agnostics, non-christian believers, and Recovering Church Kids to respond positively to Bible-based advice.
"Have You Tried..."
Part of managing an anxiety disorder is dealing with the fact that everyone else is going to try to manage it for you, whether you've asked them to or not. I can't tell you how many times I've been asked things like, "Are you exercising every day?" and "How much coffee do you drink?" It's rarely helpful, because people typically suggest coping methods that I've already tried out or adopted. Plus, it should be said that asking an anxious person multiple questions about their daily habits tends to feel more like an interrogation than a supportive conversation about mental health.
It's true that most anxious people will take all the helpful advice they can get about managing their anxiety. But it can be incredibly frustrating when someone offers us literally the most basic advice about how to cope. So if someone you know has been managing an anxiety disorder for years, don't insult their intelligence by telling them to watch their caffeine intake. That's anxiety 101.