What to Say to Someone with Anxiety, According to Mental Health Experts
Roughly 20 percent of Americans (~40 million people) deal with some form of an anxiety disorder. So chances are, if you don't have anxiety yourself, it's highly likely that you know someone who does.
Anxiety — also called clinical anxiety or anxiety disorder — is a group of five mood disorders, which affect how you feel, think, and handle daily activities, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "There's not a one-size-fits-all description of anxiety [even for clinical anxiety]," says clinical psychologist Alfiee Breland-Noble, Ph.D., host of the Couched in Color podcast and founder of the AAKOMA Project, a nonprofit dedicated to mental health care and research.
That being said, there are some guideposts to help determine the type of clinical anxiety you might be experiencing and how to best go about treating it. For example, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) typically presents as recurring, chronic anxiety, and more worry and tension than the average person — even when there's not a particularly stressful trigger, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH). Meanwhile, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is often characterized by obsessions (recurrent, unwanted thoughts), and/or compulsions (repetitive behaviors, which can include hand washing, counting, checking, or cleaning).
It's important to note, however, that you don't have to be officially diagnosed with anxiety to experience similar symptoms. Anxiety is something that helps human beings respond to the world around them and survive; the problem is when anxiety isn't serving survival, but rather inhibiting your everyday life — this is when it verges on disorder territory.
With that in mind, this article refers to the experiences of those with an anxiety disorder. And if you've never experienced a panic attack or have dealt with chronic anxiety yourself, it can be hard to understand someone who's dealing with it or relate to their experience. That's why you're here now! High-five for being a top tier friend.
If someone you care about is struggling and in need of support, fear not: Ahead, mental health experts explain how to best help someone with anxiety, including what to (and not to say) to your loved one.
Why Checking In Is So Important
If you've taken a hands-off approach and tried to give someone who might be dealing with anxiety their space, you might want to reconsider. "Those suffering from anxiety can often self-isolate or simply have trouble initiating contact with those that they love," says Melva Green, M.D., a Baltimore-based psychiatrist and co-author of Breathing Room: Open Your Heart by Decluttering Your Home. "It's important that others check in on them. Not simply for wellness checks but also as a sign that they're not alone." This support is crucial to anyone struggling — anxiety or otherwise, adds Breland-Noble. (See also: What to Say to Someone Who's Depressed, According to Mental Health Experts)
"Reminding a person you love them offers appropriate reassurance," says Breland-Noble. "Sometimes people with anxiety seek lots of external reassurance for their thoughts and behaviors, and their maladaptive thoughts and behaviors are not the things that you want to reinforce." But by sharing "unconditional love and care," you can offer the "appropriate support that's not tied to their experience of anxiety or their ability to manage anxiety," she explains.
And need not forget, of course, that when you open up a dialogue with a loved one who's suffering from anxiety, you're helping to de-stigmatize mental illness and struggles with mental health. Simply put: Each time you're able to talk about anxiety in the same way that you would any other topic, you're taking a step to decrease and, ultimately, nix any stigma or shame surrounding mental illness and emotional health, explains Terri Bacow, Ph.D., a New York City-based psychologist and author of Goodbye Anxiety.
What to Say to Someone with Anxiety
If you're wondering how to help someone with anxiety, keep in mind that you should always put your own oxygen mask on first. "The most important aspect of any of these statements is that you truly need to be prepared to help as best you can when the time arrives," says Breland-Noble. "I try not to engage too deeply if I am having my own struggles as I cannot help someone else if I have not first helped myself."
Essentially, if you're experiencing a lot of anxiety yourself, it may not be the best time for you to offer help and support. But if you feel like you're in a solid place mentally and can follow through on being there for a loved one, then refer to this roundup of what to (and not to) say when checking in on someone with anxiety.
Most people don't grow up with an expansive mental health vernacular. After centuries of mental health being essentially taboo, it can be extremely difficult to find the words to talk about something as complicated (and from the outside perspective, mysterious) as anxiety. So, don't be afraid to be inquisitive.
"One of the most simple but impactful things in starting a tough conversation is to approach it from a place of genuine curiosity," says Dr. Green. "Opening the dialogue with a genuine desire to understand what someone is going through can be life-changing." Both parties win in this situation: The person struggling feels supported and heard, and the person checking in gets to learn more, so that they can come from a place of deepened empathy going forward.
So what should getting curious look like exactly? "Start with an open-ended question and a very specific statement," recommends Breland-Noble. "[Something like,] 'I care for you or I love you and I want to support you as best I can. Is there anything I can do for you at this moment?' Then listen actively for the answer and act on it."
Another good option: "Can you describe anything I can do to support you right now?" This question is more a bit more concrete and "concrete questions leave less room for misinterpretation," explains Breland-Noble. Like the earlier example, this question also, in Breland-Noble's words, "demonstrates unconditional regard," which can be essential when it comes to helping and talking to someone with anxiety. And on that note...
Show care and concern.
Phrases such as "I love you and I want to support you as best I can" and "I love you and I don't want to see you hurting" both convey your unlimited commitment to your loved one, says Breland-Noble. "[This] gives them appropriate support that's not tied to their experience of anxiety or their ability to manage anxiety."
In other words, telling your loved one that you've noticed a change in their demeanor and emphasizing that you're here for them is reaffirming. You're essentially showing the person that their feelings matter. "Anxiety can be an upsetting and isolating experience, and when a loved one shows support, it can provide a sense of relief and allow the person to feel seen and nurtured," explains Bacow. This, in turn, can lead to them feeling more comfortable opening up and potentially seeking out treatment. (Related: What to Talk About In Therapy)
What's more, studies have linked such social support to decreased mortality, greater resilience to stress, lower levels of emotional distress (think: anxiety, depression), as well as higher self-esteem, among other positive results.
Validate their experiences and emotions.
While you do not (I repeat: do not) want to make the conversation about yourself, consider opening up about your own experiences with anxiety, says Bacow. "The key thing is to say something such as, 'I've been there' or 'I hear you; that must be so so difficult or frustrating,' to convey to the person that their experience is normal and that they're not alone," she explains. "Validation — reflecting the person's emotions back to them and making them feel heard — promotes emotion regulation; it instantly soothes the nervous system, which, when it comes to anxiety, is incredibly important."
You can also use phrases such as, "It's perfectly okay to not be okay," "Be gentle with yourself," and "It's fine to take breaks" — all of which are reassuring, putting your loved one at ease without dismissing their pain and struggle.
What Not to Say to Someone with Anxiety
Don't be dismissive.
"It is never wise to tell someone to 'just get over it' or to bombard a person suffering from anxiety with a list of 'should-do's,'" says Dr. Green. "It's simply not helpful. In fact, this is likely to be perceived as a lack of compassionate awareness and can leave a person feeling even more anxious and overwhelmed."
To make sure you steer clear of this situation, pause before you speak to ask yourself, "is what I'm about to say going to be helpful or potentially harmful?" and then adjust accordingly, suggests Dr. Green.
Other statements to steer clear of? "Calm down," "it's not that bad," or "you have nothing to worry about." All of these are entirely invalidating and a formal of gaslightling, according to neuroscientist Caroline Leaf, Ph.D. Invalidating someone's experiences like such can "make them feel guilty or shameful for how they feel," she explains. And while this is something you should probably avoid doing altogether, it's especially the case when it comes to someone with anxiety. "When people are anxious, they often worry about being judged and dismissive statements make people feel that their problems and concerns are being minimized (thus judged harshly)," points out Breland-Noble.
Avoid talking about yourself too much
As Bacow mentions above, sharing your experiences with anxiety can oftentimes help validate and normalize your loved one's challenges. But "you should never assume that your experience of anxiety is identical to the other person's," says Breland-Noble. "Of course, [it] can inform your empathy for others, but your experiences are not the blueprint for others."
If you feel that drawing on your own mental health journey can help in your conversation, consider prefacing your points by saying something such as "I know that I cannot fully understand your personal experience of anxiety, but would you feel comfortable with me sharing how I experience it and what helps me to cope?" suggests Breland-Noble. "When people are anxious, and when you assume your experiences are identical, you also run the risk of assuming that your solutions are universal (they are not)."
Don't try to "fix"
It's important to remember that you're here to offer love and support for this person, not to "fix" them. For starters, you're likely not a therapist and don't have the capacity to truly problem solve for the challenges that your loved one is facing. What's more, suggesting fixes can imply that the person is "broken," which can be especially harmful to their self-esteem — something that's already vulnerable due to anxiety.
"You may have the urge to try to fix it for other people, but often they do not want solutions — they just want to be heard," adds Bacow. If you feel absolutely compelled to offer some sort of solution, first ask your loved one if that's okay (e.g. "do you mind if I suggest something?") and if they give you the green light, use the moment to talk about how seeking out a professional can be a monumental step toward getting (and feeling) better, she explains. (Related: Accessible and Supportive Mental Health Resources for Black Womxn)