Six Things to Avoid Saying to Someone Suffering From Anxiety

Woman feeling nervous and upset.

If you have a relative or loved one suffering from anxiety, knowing the right thing to say (or do) to make them feel better can be challenging, particularly if you’ve never struggled with anxiety yourself.

Family members and friends of anxiety sufferers often feel helpless and may unintentionally end up saying the wrong thing in an attempt to comfort their loved ones.

This article explores what not to say to someone suffering from anxiety and offers some alternative phrases that you can use to help and support them.

In the meantime, if you or a loved one are suffering from significant anxiety and would like to explore treatment options, contact a specialist at Centres for Health and Healing who can help.

We provide various effective treatments for anxiety disorder that will help you get to the root cause and manage your symptoms, allowing you to live a happy, fulfilled life without persistent worry and fear holding you back.

Contact us today for further support and information about our anxiety disorder treatment program.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a physiological and psychological response that automatically occurs when the mind and body experience stressful, harmful, or unfamiliar situations or events.

It’s normal to occasionally feel anxious, worried or fearful, especially when we feel threatened or unsafe.

When in danger our bodies react by engaging in the fight or flight response, which is an acute stress response to something physically or mentally frightening.

The fight or flight response is triggered by the release of hormones that prepare our body to either stay and deal with a threat or to run away to safety. (What Is the Fight-or-Flight Response? Verywell mind, Kendra Cherry, MSEd, November 7, 2022.)

These innate responses are designed to protect us and can help us survive or get through an ordeal that would otherwise be too overwhelming or shocking to our system.

However, once the ordeal ends, we should start to feel less anxious and eventually return to our emotional baseline after processing the event.

Unfortunately, for some people, these responses are triggered too easily and too frequently – and their anxiety doesn’t go away once the perceived threat is over.  

When this happens, a person may be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, which will impact their ability to function or perform daily activities or tasks.

Whether or not you or a loved one have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, it can be helpful to know what to say and, crucially, what not to say to help them through an anxious period.

Let’s explore this further.

Six things to avoid saying to someone suffering from anxiety

Shot of a young woman experiencing mental illness while being surrounded by people inside

It can be challenging to know the right thing to say to a loved one suffering from anxiety. 

Understandably, you may feel helpless, frustrated, or worried about your loved one’s anxious symptoms or behaviour.

To make someone feel better, you may be tempted to say certain things to alleviate their suffering such as “just relax” or “calm down”. 

Unfortunately, however well-intentioned these phrases may be, they do little to help and can sometimes feel dismissive to an anxiety sufferer. 

They may even make the problem worse and must be avoided where possible.

Other unhelpful phrases to avoid saying to someone suffering from anxiety include:

1. Think positive; things could be a lot worse

Anxiety (or any other mental illness, for that matter) isn’t a condition that can be switched off at will.

If that were possible, it would eliminate much of the emotional suffering happening worldwide today!

Anxiety can be brought on at any moment. 

For instance, a person may feel happy and relaxed one minute, and the next, along comes an anxiety attack to knock them off balance!

Anxiety sufferers can’t just “hit a switch” and go back to feeling calm and happy. 

It can take a while before their nervous system calms down after an anxious episode and they may not feel back to their ordinary self for some time.

Phrases like “think positive” aren’t at all helpful, particularly in the bleak moments when a wave of anxiety comes crashing down, and it’s all a person can do to stop themselves from drowning in a sea of uncomfortable feelings and emotions.

A more helpful way to alleviate a loved one’s anxiety may be to remind them that you’re there to lend a listening ear or are willing to simpy sit with them silently until the anxiety passes.

2. It’s all in your head

Stress, divorce and couple fighting in a kitchen with anxiety

Many anxiety sufferers, particularly those with health anxiety, hear this phrase a lot, and it is profoundly unhelpful, if not downright upsetting!

The biology of anxiety alone illustrates that the condition is very much a nervous system response and definitely not “all in your head”.

For instance, researchers note that several neural structures play a role in anxiety, but the one that gives it its strong emotional colour is the amygdala. 

“The rational, thinking prefrontal cortex is responsible for interpreting the nature of the threat and orchestrating a behavioural response. 

Other brain areas also respond to the threat, and the signals they generate turn on the stress response, activating all the body systems for fight or flight”. (Psychology Today, The Biology of Anxiety.)

Researchers believe that anybody can experience a bout of debilitating anxiety but some people seem to be dispositionally inclined to anxiety.

“Their defence systems—possibly tuned by genes or temperament, possibly by early experience, possibly by over- or under-activity of some area of the brain—are poised to over-interpret neutral situations as threatening or to overreact to threatening situations”. (Psychology Today, The Biology of Anxiety.)

Telling someone their anxiety is “all in their head” dismisses the legitimacy of their feelings, making them feel even more alone and isolated than they already do.

A better alternative is to reassure your loved one that they’ve experienced anxiety before and got through it, and they will again. 

Subtle reassurance and a compassionate presence can make all the difference, allowing someone to feel seen, heard, and validated and not judged or shamed for how they feel.

3. It’s not a big deal

Another profoundly invalidating and unhelpful saying is, “It’s not a big deal”.

Anxiety is a prevalent mental health disorder that should be taken seriously. Recent studies show that approximately 4% of the global population suffers from an anxiety disorder, making anxiety disorders the most common of all. 

Anxiety can feel incredibly isolating, and can co-occur with depression and other mental or physical health conditions.

When it continues into the long term, anxiety can start to affect a person’s ability to function in everyday situations, impacting their work, relationships, and sense of self.

Individuals suffering from anxiety require compassion and reassurance from those around them so they feel safe reaching out for support and help when times get challenging.

Phrases such as “it’s not a big deal” can elicit feelings of shame and inadequacy, preventing individuals from seeking the very help and support they need.

As mentioned, it can be challenging to know the right things to say to a loved one in the throes of anxiety.

However, you might find that saying something short and simple like, “Your feelings are valid” and “What can I do to help right now?” are very effective.

4. Calm down

Sad young man talking about his mental health on a group therapy session

As well-intentioned as this saying might be, telling an anxious person to “calm down” often sends the message that they shouldn’t feel how they do.

It may deny the validity of their feelings, making the individual feel embarrassed, ashamed, or in some cases, even more anxious.

According to research, regulating your own nervous system is better than telling someone else to calm down. That way, you are in a much better position to help the anxious person in front of you.

For instance, taking a few deep breaths and calmly inviting the other person to talk helps create an environment where the anxious individual feels safe enough to speak or “just be” until their anxiety passes.

To quote a well-known phrase: “Never in all the history of being told to calm down, has anyone calmed down by being told to calm down”.

More helpful phrases might be, “It’s OK to feel this way”, “This feeling will pass” and “If you need to talk, I’m ready to listen”.

If the person starts to share how they’re feeling, listen attentively and with genuine curiosity while continuing to take deep breaths and regulate yourself.

5. You’re overthinking things

When you notice your loved one feeling anxious, it can help to avoid implying their anxiety is a result of overthinking (or other unhelpful assumptions).

Telling someone that they are “overthinking things” dismisses the complexity of their condition, regardless of what type of anxiety disorder they may have.

Anxiety sufferers have little (to no) control over their fears and emotions, and it helps those supporting them to recognise just how frightening and triggering certain situations can be.

For example, those with health anxiety can become highly distressed over specific bodily symptoms or someone with OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) may have a profound fear of exposure to germs or dirt.

These fears and worries can be all-consuming and the individual cannot simply will their way out of these thinking patterns.

So, instead of telling someone that they’re overthinking a specific problem or concern, it’s more helpful to say something as simple as, “I love you, and I’m always here for you, no matter what’s going on”.

6. Other people have it worse than you do

Comparisons have a habit of dismissing an anxiety sufferer’s struggles and can overlook the nature of anxiety disorders.

It may be true that other people have it worse, but knowing this does little to nothing at all to help those with anxiety.

Anxiety symptoms can be profoundly debilitating, impairing an individual’s capacity to function as they usually would, particularly those with high levels of anxiety.

Indeed, telling someone that “other people have it worse” doesn’t alleviate their anxiety symptoms. If anything, it often leads to additional guilt and shame.

You may find it helpful to ask your loved one, “Are you looking for advice right now, or would you prefer that I just listen?”

The above question invites the individual to talk while conveying that you are willing to sit and be present with them – that they are not alone. 

It’s that one-two punch that can really ease a person’s anxiety, making them more likely to open up and release whatever pent-up issues or worries they’ve been holding in.

Anxiety symptoms

Depressed young woman crying on the couch, stress, anxiety, loneliness

Anxiety symptoms can vary between people and may depend on various factors, including genetics, background, family history and other physical or mental health conditions an individual may have.

However, typically, anxiety symptoms are usually experienced in the following way:

  • Feelings of panic
  • Extreme lack of focus, which may lead to work and social avoidance
  • Substance abuse to cope with unpleasant feelings and emotions
  • Nervousness, restlessness, and being tense
  • Feelings of danger or dread
  • Insomnia
  • A lack of appetite or eating too much
  • Racing thoughts
  • Nausea
  • A racing heart
  • Breathlessness
  • Chest pain
  • Pins and needles, tingling or numbness in the body

Anxiety treatment

Anxiety can be a crippling mental health disorder, but fortunately, it is highly treatable.

Various treatment options can help ease the symptoms of anxiety, allowing you to identify the root cause and develop healthy coping skills.

Below are some common effective treatment options for anxiety:

Talk therapy 

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a highly effective treatment for various types of anxiety disorders. CBT encourages you to identify and change unhelpful thoughts and behavioural patterns that may contribute to your anxiety, helping you to develop healthy coping skills and manage your condition better.

Support groups 

Being around others who can relate to your experiences and challenges can provide a sense of community and understanding, making you feel less alone and isolated.

Mindfulness therapy 

Meditation, deep breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation practices can help you manage your anxiety symptoms better, leading to more favourable treatment outcomes for many.

Lifestyle changes 

A balanced diet, regular exercise, sufficient sleep, and specific stress management techniques can significantly decrease your stress levels, reducing anxiety symptoms. 

Anxiety treatment at Centres for Health and Healing

Close-up of people holding hands while sitting in a circle during group therapy at mental health center.

At Centres for Health and Healing, we provide holistic treatment programs for anxiety disorders shaped around your personal preferences and therapeutic needs.

Our team takes great pride in treating the whole person, not just the symptoms of anxiety disorder, combining traditional treatment methods, ancient wisdom, and the latest research to ensure deep, transformational healing.

We understand that recovery is a lifelong journey. Therefore, we are committed to providing a comprehensive aftercare plan to empower and support you in maintaining lasting well-being after leaving our treatment centre.

We aim to guide and support you and your loved ones through your recovery transformation and provide all the necessary tools for you to lead a positive and fulfilling life.

Please get in touch with us to learn more about our anxiety disorder treatment options and take the first step towards healing and improving your quality of life.

We are here and ready to help!

Additional resources

  1. The Biology of Anxiety, Psychology Today
  2. 5 Helpful Things to Say to a Friend Whose Anxiety Is Skyrocketing (and 3 to Avoid), SELF, Carolyn L. Todd, June 29, 2018
  3. What Is the Fight-or-Flight Response?, Verywell mind, Kendra Cherry, MSEd, November 7, 2022
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