According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness there are over 40 million (19.1%) Americans that have been diagnosed with an anxiety related disorder. One of the common struggles of someone who has anxiety are anxiety and/or panic attacks. An anxiety attack is a physical response to a perceived feeling of danger. When someone is experiencing an attack, they are in an irrational mental space where any rational strategies and information can’t be comprehended. When things like, ‘just breathe’, ‘tell me what is happening’, or ‘you’re ok’, are said it isn’t being comprehended and it could be creating even more frustration. I am aware that most of us just want to help and we feel these phrases are helpful but as a therapist, and someone who struggles with anxiety, I am here to tell you it does not. So here are some common phrases that we need to stop saying to our friends who struggle with anxiety and what to try instead.
IT’S JUST IN YOUR HEAD: this can be invalidating and is unhelpful in every way. When someone struggles with anxiety, more often than not they are aware of the fact that the fear is in their head, but walking in a different belief is extremely hard to do.
TRY THIS: talk me through the thoughts you are experiencing right now.
JUST BREATHE: this is probably one of the most frustrating things to hear for anyone who is in the midst of a panic or anxiety attack. When an attack hits there is a quick physical reaction in which the 'easiest' cures are immediately limited and taken away from us.
TRY THIS: breathe with them until you notice their breathing has normalized again. You can breathe in for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, exhale for a count of 4, and then hold for count of 4 (commonly known as box breathing).
IT’S NOT THAT BAD: this is invalidating. It can communicate a sense of judgment, and the person struggling with the anxiety is already harshly judging themselves.
TRY THIS: I am sorry you are experiencing this, and then just simply sit and be with them in that moment (if you can commit to that).
CALM DOWN: this is like telling someone to just get off a roller coaster when it has already started. An anxiety/panic attack is like being on a rollercoaster that is impossible to stop once it gets going. Saying calm down to someone isn’t productive, and it can be frustrating to hear.
TRY THIS: help ground them by touching (if appropriate) their arm, or breathing with them, or utilizing their 5 senses to help center and ground them
I KNOW WHAT YOU ARE FEELING: it is important to recognize that two people can struggle with the same thing but experience it differently. Although you may have anxiety yourself, you can’t put yourself in a position of knowing how the other person is processing and struggling with it. This phrase can also take away from the person struggling and put unnecessary attention on us.
TRY THIS: this can’t be easy, but I know this moment isn’t going to last forever and I am here until you start to feel better.
I believe that most of us want to be effective and helpful when those we love seem to be in a hard moment. I hope these few tips and reminders will help us become the effective and helpful friends that our loved ones deserves.
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Anastasia Brokas LMFT