Get over it
Ah, if it were only that simple. There are some things that people living with anxiety would like you to know, beginning with the fact that it's impossible to just get over it. "Anxiety, like all mental health states, is personal and subjective," says licensed psychotherapist Amy Axtell, MA, of Tuscon, Arizona. How we react to anxious friends, family, and acquaintances should be equally personal and subjective. But that reaction should never be dismissive. "Not only does saying get over it dismiss the sufferer's experience, but it also ignores what may be the actual degree of severity," says Axtell.
Instead, Axtell suggests leading with a sense of sincere interest. "Ask your friend or family member what they're feeling. What's triggering them? What do they normally do to find comfort?"
You're going to make yourself sick
Many people who suffer from anxiety disorder also suffer from some level of hypochondria or are prone to worrying about their health. Suggesting that someone's anxiety might make him sick is only going to increase his anxiety, says Axtell.
Living with an anxiety sufferer can be challenging, but often distraction can help. Offer to take a walk with the person for a change of scenery, which is known to defuse anxiety.
From the outside, the solutions can seem simple—and there are so many easy ways to relax! However: Axtell points out that the state of being unable to relax is a symptom of anxiety disorder. Telling someone with anxiety disorder to "just relax" it's like telling someone with a cold not to sneeze or someone with Tourette syndrome to sit still.
Axtell suggests acknowledging a person's anxiety without judgment and perhaps remind them of times when they felt more relaxed—especially if it was a fun time you spent together—to help them realize that they won't feel this way indefinitely.
Maybe you should stop thinking so much
That's exactly what anxiety is, says Axtell: It puts people on high alert at all times for anything possibly dangerous or worrisome. Thoughts race, and new things to worry about crop up, anxious behaviors (like overeating, nail-biting, talking too fast) spike and become another source of anxiety, and the cycle perpetuates itself. Telling anxious people to stop thinking so much is not going to help them stop, says Axtell—it just gives them one more thing to worry about.
A better suggestion is to help sufferers shift their attention to something else. For example, you can point them toward these calming phrases that experts say help with anxiety.
Maybe you just need a drink
Self-medicating leads to all kinds of trouble, warns Axtell, as its benefits don't last and can lead to dependency. She further points out that "many people suffering from anxiety also have substance abuse issues and may be involved in a recovery program that prohibits the use of any mood altering substances." This suggestion goes beyond insensitivity: It's potentially dangerous.
Instead, suggest going to the gym together: Exercise is particularly helpful in relieving anxiety symptoms.
Stress and anxiety are not the same thing, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. However, they are often used interchangeably. Stress is a response to a threat in a situation, and the symptoms include heart palpitations, increased blood pressure, facial flushing, mood swings and, yes, anxiety. However, anxiety remains present beyond the duration of the stressful situation, or was there beforehand. (Here are other signs of an anxiety disorder.) The anxious person can't shake off everyday stress, so saying it is both confusing and frustrating.
Axtell suggests validating and offering support, instead. For example, you can listen and respond with, "I hear what you're saying. You feel stressed/anxious/worried. Let me know how I can help." Here are what crisis counselors tell people with anxiety.
I'm stressed out too
Not only does this statement conflate stress and anxiety, it also tends to trivialize the feelings of the person—similar to dismissing the anxious person's feelings.
Axtell recommends that you let yourself be led instead by a gentle "curiosity." Support the anxious person by asking questions and listening without judgment. Don't talk about your anxiety if you've never suffered the real thing—you can empathize without taking this step.
Here's how to improve your capacity for empathy.
Stop sweating the small stuff
And therein lies the rub: To a person with anxiety disorder, there is no small stuff.
Instead of offering cliches, Axtell encourages acceptance. Let an anxious person know, without judgment, that you understand that he is feeling anxious, that it's okay, and that it will eventually pass.
A lot of people have it worse
More trivializing, and now with guilt! First, make sure you're not slipping into toxic behavior patterns, because pointing out that other people have it worse will only make an anxious person feel guilty and ashamed.
As Axtell sees in her own practice, when patients are feeling anxious, they are still no less aware that others in the world are suffering too and possibly from far more devastating afflictions, including starvation, abuse, or serious illness.
You're making your own problems
Now you're not only blaming the person with anxiety disorder for her anxiety disorder, but you're saying saying her feelings are invalid. Brush up on how to be a supportive friend, and try taking another approach.
If you're at a loss for what to say to the anxious person in your life, offering a hug is another way to show support.