Don’t tell someone with anxiety not to worry. It’s like telling a dog not to bark or a bird not to fly. They do it without thinking. It’s the same with worry.
I have generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and major depressive disorder. Most it came along with being diagnosed with a chronic illness called Central Sensitivity Syndrome. Dealing with chronic illness can amplify those feelings of anxiety and depression for many reasons: chronic pain, feelings of worthlessness, feeling like you’re a burden, the guilt of feeling like you’re never there for those who need you…the list goes on.
My first panic attacks began in my sleep. Yes, in my sleep. I didn’t think such a thing was even possible until I ended up in the ER after a particularly bad attack (which I didn’t remember). A few blood tests later and I had the diagnosis.
Now the panic attacks have migrated to my waking hours. They come out of nowhere like a freight train, barreling down on my chest until I can’t breathe, then I hyperventilate, sweat, my stomach feels sick, and I get very weak, especially afterward. It’s the hardest feeling to describe, and no one understands what it truly feels like unless they’ve had one.
The panic attacks cause even more anxiety because then I’m anticipating an attack, thinking about it, becoming nervous about it, so it’s an endless cycle.
Dealing with mental illness is one of the most difficult things to deal with, mainly because these are invisible illnesses and often misunderstood. To make matters worse, there’s a stigma that still surrounds mental illness, even in 2019, despite a more open discourse in society, and despite the fact that one in three Americans suffer from an anxiety disorder.
Having support when panic attacks or anxiety strikes is so helpful, but sometimes it’s hard to know what to say to someone if you find yourself in the support role.
As someone who has mental illness, and knows others who do, I’d like to take a moment and talk about what NOT to say to someone who has anxiety:
- Don’t worry! What do you have to be worried about? Um, lots, ok? That’s the beauty of anxiety. You could have the best life, all the money in the world, a family that adores you, a great job, but still…anxiety would give you plenty to worry about. Anxiety causes us to disproportionately see things as worrisome, and in my case, I seem to create things to worry about. I try hard not to, but it happens. My mind is usually caught in “worst-case scenario” mode when my anxiety is not under control.
- You’ll be fine, just sleep on it. [Insert eye rolls here.] When you have generalized anxiety disorder sleep doesn’t come easily, because your mind is racing ninety to nothing at all times, and it gets worse at night. The quiet and stillness of the bedroom make those anxious thoughts grow into huge, ugly monsters in a matter of minutes.
- Stop blowing everything out of proportion! If those with anxiety do make mountains out of molehills, we literally can’t help it. It’s another case of “worst-case scenario” mode.
- Will you listen to yourself? You sound crazy! When at the depths of my depression, or my anxiety gets too out of control, I do hear myself and think wow, did that really just come out of my mouth? Again, as hard as we try to control what we think and say, our minds can run away with us and leave us apologizing later.
- Nothing is ever as bad as you make it out to be. Yeah, it’s probably not, but you simply can’t say that to someone with anxiety and make them suddenly feel great about life. One hint of a worrisome thought can snowball into Mt. Everest.
- You’re just stressed out. Have you tried yoga? Oh boy. I used to be a yoga teacher, and while it does help, yoga is not a cure-all. There’s no one thing that is a cure-all, as it takes different types of wellness therapies to help with anxiety disorder and mental illness.
Those of us with mental illness need nonjudgmental support. Hearing phrases like those above make us feel embarrassed or shameful of something we have no control over. If you know someone with depression, anxiety, or any mental illness, think about what you say to them, and how you say it. Be kind, and show empathy whenever you can. Even with medication, therapy, diet, exercise, etc., we are going to have bad mental health days, and never know when the next trigger might be rounding the corner.
Here are some ways to support a loved one who might be having a bad mental health day:
- What are you worried about? Would you like to talk about it? Instead of belittling a friend’s worries, be supportive and listen. Sometimes that’s all we need — someone to listen to us.
- What can I do to help you? This is better than saying, have you tried yoga, or you need to sleep on it, or whatever. Even if there isn’t anything you can do to help me, just asking that question helps immensely.
- Do you need to go somewhere quieter, to help you relax? If your friend or loved one seems to be having a panic attack or seems visibly upset, help get them to a quiet place. Noise and crowds only make attacks worse. Don’t tell us we need to calm down, or that we’re overreacting. That doesn’t help, and again, minimizes our experience.
- If you don’t want to talk, I can just be here with you. Sometimes we don’t want to talk. Just having someone near who respects and understands what we are going through is priceless.
No one is perfect, and we all say the wrong things at the wrong moment. As someone with mental illness, I know how important it is to have support. As a friend/family member to people with mental illness, I know how helpless we can feel when someone is in crisis.
Listen, give advice, hugs, share a cup of tea, and let those you love know that you are there for them. Sometimes that is all we need. Someone just…being there.