Words by Mia Sutton
I've had anxiety all my life. I didn't have a name for it at first. Nor did I fully realize that something was wrong. It had always been around, so I assumed it was normal. I experienced many sleepless nights thinking about the most irrational things and feeling my heart pound out of my chest. One thought would lead to another and another until I was convinced that everything would end in a disaster of epic proportions.
I wasn't officially diagnosed until I was 31 years old. My symptoms had gotten so bad that I knew I had to see a doctor about it. More specifically, my husband told me that he was worried about me and that it might help to go see someone. After one 50-minute session, the doctor said to me, "You are the textbook definition of someone with depression and generalized anxiety disorder." I was so overwhelmed that I couldn't formulate a response, so I just looked at the floor, tears filling my eyes. She prescribed medication for me and told me to come back in 3 weeks.
After that appointment, I read every online article about generalized anxiety that I could find. And I remember feeling validated, that what was happening to me was normal for someone with anxiety. There was a reason I was experiencing these symptoms and thoughts. I wasn't happy to have anxiety, but I was relieved to see that there was a name for how I've always felt and see the symptoms listed out like a checklist for my brain.
I remember going back to work the next day and having a conversation with my boss at the time about my anxiety and depression. I tried to hold it together while telling her about it and that I'd have to miss a little bit of work at first for follow up appointments until the doctor and I could figure out my dosage. But I couldn't fight back the tears and I clearly remember her being very calm and kind and saying, "It's OK. I promise it will be OK and you'll feel better after this process. Don't worry about your appointments, it's fine." I appreciated her strength and support in that moment so much.
But not everyone reacts the same way. Anxiety is an illness that still remains elusive to those who don't suffer from it or don't understand it. For anxiety sufferers, our brains are different. Our reactions are different. Our coping mechanisms are different. I've said it before and I'll keep saying it - feeling temporarily anxious is not the same as having a diagnosed anxiety disorder. According to the Mayo Clinic: "Experiencing occasional anxiety is a normal part of life. However, people with anxiety disorders frequently have intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations. These feelings of anxiety and panic interfere with daily activities, are difficult to control, are out of proportion to the actual danger and can last a long time."
I truly believe that people are intrinsically good and want to be helpful. But that doesn't mean that they always know what to say. Whether they don't understand what having anxiety means, or they are dismissive of it as a "real" medical and mental condition, or even if they are genuinely trying to be supportive, their responses to me over the past few years have sometimes been insensitive and upsetting.
So, on that note, here are 6 things NOT to say to someone suffering from anxiety:
1) You have nothing to worry about.
Anxiety sufferers worry about everything. Little things, big things. Things that happen every day. It might not make sense to you, or you might think it's silly, but truly, the tiniest situations can send us off into a spiral of panic and worry.
2) There are so many other horrible things going on in the world, be thankful you're not dealing with those situations.
I realize that having anxiety can seem trivial when compared to grief or widespread disease or poverty or natural disasters. But it doesn't mean that anxiety doesn't greatly affect my day-to-day life. I don't let it get me down and I try very hard to minimize its effects. But it's a medical condition. I do the best I can to deal with it and live life as best I can. Regardless, I don't think that we should participate in a game of "I have it harder than you." Everyone has hard things in life and we're all doing our best.
3) You look fine to me.
Just like any other invisible illness, anxiety isn't always something you can see. Yes, we can become paralyzed with fear at times, and be visibly suffering from a panic attack. But there are also times when we are OK. Happy and thriving even. The way a person looks on the outside often has little correlation to the turmoil that is happening on the inside of their bodies and brains.
4) Aren't you on medication? // You should be on medication.
These are 2 sides of the same coin. On one side, you have folks who think that taking medication for anxiety is the be-all, end-all cure. Medication can definitely help, but every person is different. I personally have still had anxiety attacks while on medication, though the frequency was greatly reduced. On the other hand, there are people who think that if you're not taking medication, you need to be. But in reality, there are anxiety sufferers who do not and/or cannot take the medication and prefer to treat their condition in other ways. It's a personal decision that is only between them and their doctor.
5) Just calm down.
Hands down, this is the absolute worst thing you can say. If we had the ability to "just calm down" we would and then anxiety wouldn't be an issue. It's something that we cannot mentally and physically control.
6) My [insert person] has anxiety, too and s/he's fine.
Again, every person is different. Treatments and coping techniques that work for one person may not work for someone else. There are also various anxiety disorders out there and that can affect each person differently depending on the situation - separation anxiety, generalized anxiety, agoraphobia, social anxiety, various panic and/or stress disorders, etc. It gets even more complicated when the person has multiple diagnoses - like me with anxiety AND depression.
This list isn't exhaustive, but you get the point. And I'm not a doctor, for the record, or a therapist, but from my own experiences, hearing someone say something supportive truly means so much. So, how can you support someone with anxiety? Trying saying things like:
-Are you OK?
-Do you want to talk about it?
-When you're having an anxiety attack, what's the best way for me to help you?
-Tell me more about your condition, I want to understand.
Now it's YOUR turn. What other things would you add to the "do say" and "don't say" lists? Comment below!
Click to Read Next: Anxiety: The Invisible Illness
About the Author:
Mia is a self-proclaimed word nerd. She is a writer, blogger, and poet and is also the Editorial Manager for Holl & Lane Magazine. She loves donuts, laughter, and cheesy action movies. Mia lives in Virginia with her husband and 2 kids. Read more from Mia on her blog.