If you know or love someone who struggles with anxiety, then you know how hard it can be to help them. You try to offer words of encouragement, but nothing really seems that helpful. Or maybe you’re someone who struggles with anxiety, and you’ve had a lifetime of friends and family telling you to “relax” or “stop worrying.” These comments are often well-intentioned; they’re meant to be helpful. Yet they’re anything but. If you’re trying to help someone with anxiety, here are three things you’ve got to stop saying.
1. Don’t worry. It can be hard to talk with someone who’s anxious. They’re lost in their worry, talking fast, and jumping to conclusions. As you watch them go down the rabbit hole of worry, you can’t help by think of how illogical their worry seems. You can see how much stress it’s causing them, and want to offer reassurance. So, you toss out the quickest words of comfort you can think of. “Don’t worry.”
And bam, just like that, you’ve delivered one of the most unhelpful responses of all time. Trying to help someone with anxiety and telling them not to worry, is like telling a kid to stop wanting candy. Not gonna happen. For people who are anxious, worrying is basically their default. It’s just how their brain works. And while they can totally learn some coping skills to help manage their worry, stopping the worry up front and all together is pretty impossible.
So acknowledge the person’s worry. Acknowledge that the situation is scary or stressful. Then you can offer some words of encouragement. But don’t you dare mutter the words, “Don’t worry.” You’ll get the evil eye before you can add “be happy” onto the end of that sentence.
2. It’ll be fine. Things will work out. This phrase is so well-intentioned. And you know what, it’s probably true most of the time. Things probably will work out, because they usually do. But we don’t know that for sure. And to someone with anxiety, “It’ll be fine” is one of the most minimizing and invalidating things you can say.
You’re trying to help someone with anxiety. You mean it to be encouraging. But it’s the exact opposite. Because unless you have a crystal ball, or unless you’re a psychic, you don’t actually know that things will work out. You can’t be sure.
Here’s a good example. A while back, I had a client who was waiting on some scary health news. Doctors had found a small mass in his abdomen, and everyone in his family kept telling him, “It’ll be fine.” And even though his family and friends meant well, this response was incredibly unhelpful for him. Because how did anyone know he’d be okay? How did anyone know the mass wouldn’t be anything serious? The answer? They didn’t. They hoped it would be fine. And they hoped it wouldn’t be anything serious. But they didn’t know.
A more helpful response is to acknowledge that it could be scary and that it could be something serious. And in addition, help them see that it also could also be a million other, less serious and scary things. Help them manage their worry while they wait, and remind them that you’re there for them, no matter what the outcome.
3. Think positive. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. I don’t believe in positive thinking. At least not how we usually think about it. Positive thinking tends to conjure up images of rainbows and unicorns. That everything is great, and happy, and totally worry free. And for people with anxiety, that seems impossible. And it’s something they already feel pretty discouraged about.
While the message behind. “Think positive” is well-intentioned, it feels shaming and blaming when you’re on the receiving end. To a person struggling with anxiety, this comment comes across as, “Stop being so negative, and get it together.” If you’re trying to help someone with anxiety, challenge them to think about all the possible outcomes and all the possible things. I’ve got a super helpful video on this concept that will walk you through exactly how to do this with someone.
Healthy people don’t just look at the good. (And obviously, they don’t just look at the bad.) They look at all of the things. The good, the bad, and everything in between. When you’re anxious, you have a hard time seeing the good or how things might play out more positively. So when you help someone with anxiety, they’re probably going to have a hard time seeing the positive. And while you can certainty help them in that aspect, don’t overfocus on it. Acknowledge the negative before jumping to the positive. You’ll help the person feel heard, valued, and listened to. (For more on this, check out this video!)
Ready to stop saying these things and start saying something helpful? Read here for the simple formula about how to comfort someone. (Seriously, it’s pretty foolproof and works in most ever situation!)