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Anxiety is a feeling of worry or unease. We all feel anxious at some time in our lives, perhaps before an important job interview or before a medical test. But some people's anxiety is more constant, looms larger, and interferes with much of their daily lives. 40 million Americans suffer with some form of Anxiety Disorder, and it can be crippling.
The most common types of anxiety include:
- Panic Disorder: A permanent feeling of panic and anxiety with no apparent stimulus. Panic attacks are regular and recurring. It severely disrupts daily life
- Phobia: A fear of a particular stimulus, such as claustrophobia (fear of small confined spaces), arachnophobia (fear of spiders), or aviophobia (fear of flying). Sufferers usually avoid the stimulus. Depending on what the stimulus is, this may make life considerably less rich than it could be (I recall a woman who walked several miles in the rain because her claustrophobia meant she found it impossible to take a particularly crowded bus).
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: An anxiety disorder caused by a highly stressful, frightening or distressing event, such as war, sexual assault, attempted murder, natural disaster, or being held hostage. The effects may be particularly crippling on a person's life.
- Social Anxiety Disorder: A persistent, overwhelming anxiety that occurs in any social situations.
For sufferers of these conditions, life is made difficult by a range of symptoms including heart palpitations, panic, restlessness, insomnia, breathlessness, and anxiety.
"Helpful" friends then compound the problem with a barrage of cheerful clichés, peppy bromides, and generally unhelpful comments that undermine the individual, stripping away the confidence which is already dented by an illness.
So let's look at the 7 most unhelpful things you can say to a person with anxiety:
"Just calm down"
This is harmful because it suggests that people with anxiety can just relax if they choose. Anxiety is not a choice. Anxiety is a sensation that intensifies, and you may not always know the cause.
As psychologist Shawn Smith put in an open letter on Psychology Today: "Let’s acknowledge the obvious: if I could stop my anxiety, I would have done so by now. That may be difficult to understand since it probably looks like I choose to [panic, scrub, hoard, pace, hide, ruminate, check, clean, etc]. I don’t. In my world, doing those things is only slightly less excruciating than not doing them. It’s a difficult thing to explain, but anxiety places a person in that position."
Try this instead: Ask what makes the person feel calmer and then offer to do it with them. Watching a film, meditating, going for a walk, or working out together are good ways to help alleviate symptoms. Words might not be your friend.
"Just do it"
Also "Just suck it up". This is a popular old chestnut used on people with phobias. This kind of "tough love" may be popular, but is ultimately unhelpful. People with phobias aren't deliberately avoiding stimuli because they think it's fun. Trying to use tough-love only makes your friend or relative feel unsupported and insecure. By disregarding their phobia, the sufferer becomes defensive and feels they have to fight for the right to feel their valid felings.
Try this instead: Say, "It must be terrible to feel this way". By showing empathy, you help the sufferer be calm.