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As someone who has had struggles with anxiety, I have been given lots of really bad advice. Anxiety can make someone feel vulnerable, and when someone slings around bad advice or unhelpful words, it can shatter them. Hopelessness is a common emotion amongst people with anxiety, and bad advice only puts salt on that wound. That is why it is so important to think before giving advice!
Before you go any further, I would like to state that most pieces of advice are given with great intentions! But if we are not thinking about how that advice is given, we can do more harm than good.
In the mind of someone with anxiety, their fight-or-flight responses are in overdrive. Most of the time, they really do believe the worst is going to happen. The battle in their mind doesn’t seem made up, in fact, it feels very real. This is not something we can just wish away from someone, or talk down to. It is important we validate those feelings because if we ignore them they’ll never heal. When we give space to validate those anxious feelings, we in turn give space to allow healing work to begin.
Don’t Worry About It
When we say “Don’t worry about it,” to someone experiencing anxiety about a situation, we have all the intentions of bringing peace to them, but you’re actually nullifying their feelings. Trust me, anyone experiencing anxiety is probably already telling themselves to not worry about it. Hearing that same nullifying phrase is like shoving a finger into a wound.
As I mention in my post, “One Amazing Strategy To Calm and Control Anxiety,” most anxiety is wrapped up in an overwhelming feeling of being out of control. When we feel like we’ve lost control over certain aspects of our life, we become anxious. Saying “don’t worry about it” might sound helpful to you, and you may be saying it with great intentions, but it doesn’t bring a solution or solidarity, it invalidates and nullifies how that person feels. They may already feel invalidated because of their anxiety, they don’t need any additional help feeling that way.
Most people who are struggling with any mental health issues already try to nullify their own feelings, especially if they were raised in a household where they were taught to hide their feelings instead of let them be felt. As a kid, I remember being told to “stop freaking out,” and “quit being dramatic”. My parents didn’t mean harm by saying those things at all, and to some extent I probably was freaking out and being dramatic, but when it comes to real anxiety (whether you think it’s real or not), you need to be careful to not invalidate their real feelings.
To that person struggling, they may already feel like they’re overreacting, and they don’t need a reminder from you. In their own mind, they may already be invalidating themselves, but when you listen to them and take them seriously, that can lead to peace, instead of more negativity.
What if that person isn’t overreacting? Perhaps that person is experiencing anxiety about something that is perfectly valid to them? Let me give you an example:
I knew a woman who absolutely LOST IT when her daughter asked her to go to a sleepover at a friends house. She refused to let her go. The daughter got very upset at her mom, to the point where she began isolating from her mom. The mom knew she was overreacting. She even acknowledged that. What she didn’t tell her daughter was why she was so anxious about her going to a sleepover. When the mom was a child, she was assaulted at a sleepover. When her daughter asked to go to a sleepover, she immediately went into a panic and reacted based off her trauma. Her daughter didn’t know that.
To an outsider who didn’t know the why behind the anxiety, that seemed like a major overreaction on the moms part. But in the eyes of the mom, she was valid. Be careful to tell someone they’re overreacting when in fact, they may be reacting appropriately based off their own past experiences.
Get Over It
This one is just silly! If we could all just “get over it” then none of us would have any issues! Once again, I guarantee you that anyone struggling with anxiety wishes they could just get over it. If only it were that simple.
Also, this can be very hateful and demeaning. This kind of comment immediately shuts down the lines of communication that could happen. Mental health issues are not like mosquitos, we can’t just swat them away. For many people, it requires rewriting an entire life’s worth of self talk, and recreating healthy habits. This is tough work!
Telling someone to “get over it” is not a magical answer, in fact most of the time when someone says this, they want you to quit talking to them about it. From experience, someone who believes mental health issues are something you just “get over” are people who are not interested in sitting in your mess with you, they’re more interested in their own agenda. I wish I had a positive spin on this one, but it’s just plain rude.
Anyone who has a toddler knows that telling a toddler to “calm down” in the middle of a meltdown is a recipe for disaster! Why? Because telling a toddler to calm down when they’re having a meltdown will automatically invalidate how they feel in the moment.
Some people with anxiety do not display their anxiety in a way that makes them look frazzled or frantic, but for those who do, this can be a common phrase they hear. Perhaps a mom who is experiencing an anxious moment might frantically make lists, or run around with cleaning supplies. Imagine if that mom’s spouse said, “Honey, you need to calm down!” Depending on that moms personality, that spouse might not live to see another day!
Telling someone to calm down when their mind is in chaos is a great way to invalidate and nullify how that person feels in the moment. Unfortunately, emotions are not water faucets, we can’t just turn them off. Perhaps it is better to give that person space to find calm, instead of forcing calm on them by telling them to calm down.
“It’s just a ____________”
“Sweetie, It’s just a doctor’s appointment”
“Honey, It’s just a tantrum”
“They’re just dishes”
This is yet again another prime example of undermining perfectly valid feelings. In the eyes of someone who isn’t experiencing that anxiety, a doctors appointment seems routine and harmless. To a mom who’s experienced health issues with themselves or their family, doctors appointments can stir up lots of negative feelings. Tantrums can seem like another day in the office for stay at home moms, but the mom who remembers being abused by family members as a child, tantrums can be very triggering. Dishes seem like an everyday eyesore for most people, but for those feeling particularly out of control, it can be the cherry on top of a really bad day.
When it comes to anxiety, it’s never “just a” situation, it’s that situation with every other situation, that turns into an overwhelming cluster! What seems like nothing to you can mean much more to them. Instead of weighing out the severity of a situation based off your own experiences, try to weigh it off of their experiences. This can give you some powerful insight on why that person is feeling anxious.
Giving an anecdotal story
This is something many people do in an effort to relate to people, but it doesn’t always help. It’s done with the best of intentions, but usually hurts more than helps.
Let me give you an example:
“You know, my daughter used to have tantrums constantly. I mean ALL DAY LONG she cried over everything, and it was just awful. So yeah, I get it…”
and that’s it.
No solution, no advice, just a really crappy story.
Can you imagine being told a story like that? Would that story give you any kind of hope? Absolutely not! It’s probably just gonna make you feel more hopeless, and therefore more anxious! Sure, that person was probably trying to be relatable. That’s understandable, but when someone is feeling overwhelmed and/or hopeless, they don’t need to hear you overwhelming and/or hopeless stories. They need relief and hope.
Most of the time, relief and hope don’t come with anecdotal stories, they come with compassion and love. There’s nothing wrong with being relatable, but please don’t leave it off there. Ask if there’s something you can do to help. If you have a helpful, proven resource, then offer it to them with their permission. Give them a reason to have hope, not just a story of a time when your life sucked.
Give unsolicited medical/psychological advice
I’m gonna get so much hate for it…but here I go anyways:
“You know I have some essential oils that can help with that,”
“When I had postpartum depression, my doctor prescribed me _____ and it really helped!”
“Have you tried (insert medical/psychological/holistic medicinal thing here)?”
Most people have good intentions when giving these types of advice! I don’t think anyone who does this says it maliciously. But please be careful offering medical advice or psychological advice when you are not a medical or psychological professional.
The other key term here is “unsolicited.” That means that the person experiencing anxiety didn’t ask you for that kind of advice! If someone is simply talking to you about their anxiety and they don’t say “what should I do?” or “what can I do medically to help this?” or “what should I do psychologically to help this?” then they may not be wanting that kind of advice from you.
They may just want you to listen.
If you’re just ITCHING to tell that person of something that you genuinely believe can help them, I would ask first. Maybe phrase it something like this:
“I’m really sorry you’re dealing with this. If you want, I know someone who might be able to help you.”
This isn’t pushy, or like shameless marketing. This is medical/psychological advice that is given at the acceptance of the other person. The key to offering that kind of advice to someone is to understand that medical or psychological advice may not be what they need at the moment. They may already be receiving that kind of help on their own accord. What they might need you to do more is to simply listen and be there for them.
Quoting the “Be Anxious For Nothing” scripture
I’m always afraid to post things like this, because I know I’m going to make some Christians afraid. But that’s ok with me. It is necessary that we as Christians understand how to use scripture to help people, and not abuse it.
Philippians 4:6-7 says “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, but by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
What a powerful scripture! But think about the anxious person for a minute. Do they already know that scripture? Do they have a relationship with Jesus? Are they already taking their requests to the Lord? Do you think they may already be genuinely trying to take their anxieties to Jesus?
Just quoting a scripture to them can feel like bashing a Bible over their problems, instead of getting to the root of the issue. Knowing and understanding scripture is absolutely essential to overcoming the obstacles of life, but when we abuse scripture in a way that makes us ignore the problems instead of getting to the root of the problem, then healing never really happens. Perhaps that person needs your help fulfilling that scripture, not just saying it.
Don’t just quote scripture at people. help them fulfill the scripture! HELP that person make their requests known to God! Help that person pinpoint what exactly it is they need Jesus to help with. Don’t just vaguely quote scripture to them and then not be there when the dirty work of enacting it over their life happens. If that person is deep in an anxious hole, they may need your help with prayer. They may need you to stay by them while they get deep into knowing what requests they should make to the Lord. They can’t just be handed a scripture and say “you figure it out.” God may have given you that scripture to give to them not just to quote, but to help them enact it.
Pray about it
Once again, I’m gonna get a lot of hate for this one.
Here’s why telling someone to just pray about it can be unhelpful:
When someone is in the middle of a fire, you don’t yell “put out the fire!” to them! They’re literally stuck in a fire! They can’t help themselves! So what do they do? They call the fire department to help them. The fire department, with all their equipment and armor to protect them from the fire, will put out the fire and rescue the people inside. They are equipped to handle a life-or-death situation.
When someone is in the throes of anxiety, their fight-or-flight responses are in overdrive. Simply put, in that moment they may not be equipped to attack the gates of hell in prayer. They need someone who is equipped! You are the one with the proper spiritual gear on. Instead of just telling someone to pray about it, try praying with them about it!
Praying in the middle of a mental attack can be incredibly difficult. They may need you to help them. They may need you to model prayer for them at that moment. Even if that friend whose struggling is a seasoned prayer warrior, finding the words in such a difficult moment can feel impossible. They don’t need to be left alone to struggle in prayer, join them in the struggle, and lead them in!
Related Reading: How To Pray When You Don’t Have Time
Bottom Line: They may not need advice, they may need understanding
I have found in my own personal life that when I’ve talked about my battles with anxiety, that the greatest help I’ve ever received is someone simply listening to me. In my heaviest moments of anxiety, the people who sat with me and listened more than talked were the people I believed helped me the most.
Like I stated earlier several times, I think just about everybody who says these statements probably means well. I do think most people who give these bits of advice want the best for whoever they’re helping, but if our good intentions are hurting more than helping, then the problem is us, not the one whose struggling.
The Bible mentions lots of times of God being our shelter in times of storms, or keeping us under His wings, or being a strong tower. These scriptures are so helpful for people who are struggling. They’re not rebukes for not being good enough, and they’re not pieces of anecdotal advice or referrals to pyramid schemes. It’s simply God saying that He will sit in your mess with you, and hold you tight. He knows this sucks, which is why He is going to keep you safe.
Perhaps that person whose fighting anxiety doesn’t need your words at that moment, they may just need your hand and your ears. The way they feel is valid, and in their mind, it is very real. Even if it’s not to you, they need protection in their most vulnerable time. Just like God shelters us in our storms, your friend or loved one may need your shelter in that moment. If they want the advice, or ask for the advice, feel free to share it with them in a thoughtful way. But if what they need is your shelter, then open the doors for them and hold them close.
Want some good alternatives to say instead? Check out this infographic for some helpful alternative!