It’s very difficult to know what to say to a loved-one who is suffering from anxiety (or any mental anguish for that matter) and in our best efforts can cause more stress to someone without realizing it. Most people do want help and appreciate a genuine concern and curiosity about what they are experiencing. A good rule to live by is, when in doubt just be curious. Don’t try to fix or push your own agenda on them, even if you can clearly see that your advice, if followed, could be beneficial. We have a saying in the mental health profession “meet the client where they are at” and believe me, as a born helper and recovering co-dependent myself, this has been one of the hardest lessons for me to learn and I share the following examples with you as a guilty party! I have tried ALL of these and know from personal experience that they really don’t help.
1. “Just Relax” Clearly if the person knew how to do this they would. This is exactly what they want and are unable to achieve so giving them such a directive will only make them feel worse. Anxiety is the opposite of relaxed and that energy has to GO somewhere. You are better off suggesting they take a walk or go to the gym as exercise is one of the best forms of treatment for anxiety symptoms.
2. “There’s nothing to be afraid of” You cannot out-logic a highly anxious person. They quite often ruminate on all of the things to be afraid of and why. They will no doubt have a well thought out argument as to why getting on that plane is a bad idea and the facts to back it up. A better approach is to discuss what they will gain by going ahead with the frightening behavior. Perhaps it is too see a friend or loved-one they miss, or to visit a new and exotic location; focus on the gain not the pain.
3. “It’s just nerves” Nerves are what people who do not suffer from severe anxiety experience and this is just evidence that you truly do not understand what they are going through which may make them feel less connected and more “broken”. It’s ok not to understand, and be grateful that you can’t, but the message this sends is a severe minimization of what they are feeling and can cause more harm because they may then conceal what they are experiencing even to doctors or other professionals who can help thinking that it’s really not that bad.
4. “You need to face your fears” While this may actually be helpful (systematic desensitization) that is not how to go about it. A person may or may not need to actually do this and that is best determined with the help of mental health professionals. I can’t really give you an alternative, but trust me don’t go there.
5. “You look nervous” Pointing out that someone physically appears to be in distress causes them more distress. While you do want to express your concern and support for the person, it’s much better to ask them how they are feeling. This is an open-ended, non-biased way of genuinely checking in with someone (and that’s just good etiquette for anyone, not just an anxiety sufferer).
It can be very difficult to sit with someone who is experiencing severe anxiety and the more they matter to you, the more anxious you may even become. Truly the best thing to do for any loved-one going through a difficult time is to simply be there for them, when they need you to be. You don’t need to “fix” anything, but you can be curious about what they are experiencing and ask them what they need from you. If they don’t know, that’s ok just being there is enough. Knowing that someone is there is inherently comforting.