This week on aSweatLife.com, in honor of World Mental Health Day on October 10 we’re talking about mental health to raise awareness of the issues we all face and lessen the stigma of discussing mental health openly. We believe #everythingisbetterwithfriends, and we encourage you to be open to discussing mental health with yours — and if you need to talk to someone right now, you can dial 1-800-273-8255 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.
High anxiety is a struggle—it’s a new level of stress that doesn’t even compare to a minor worry, like making it on time to a work appointment or having a belly full of nerves before a big test. So when someone chooses to open up to you about their state of mind, you want to make sure you know how best to respond and be there for them in a compassionate, helpful manner.
Unfortunately, it’s pretty common for people to say the “wrong” things—maybe they aren’t sure what to say, or they think they’re being helpful, but in reality, they are not. Regardless of intention, those phrases can be counterproductive (and just plain annoying!).
Avoid making these mistakes when you’re speaking to someone struggling, and look to using these better phrases instead.
“Why don’t you try deep breathing?”
“Deep breathing doesn’t work for everyone. Instead, ask the person how you can help them calm down,” says Katie Leikam, LCSW, LISW-CP, BC-TMH.
What’s more, by asking them to try deep breathing, it downplays their emotions as well. Breathing can help center people, perhaps in a yoga or mediation class, but for those with real heightened anxiety, such as an anxiety disorder, it just isn’t strong enough to do the trick. There are so many other factors at play.
Instead, say this: Ask how you can help them; by doing so, you are showing them that you’re there for whatever they need, and you’ll be able to provide the most efficient and helpful care possible.
“You’ll get over it.”
“Usually after the event, people do recover from their anxiety. But, in the meantime let the person know that you understand they are anxious and you will listen to their fears, and then really listen to them,” she says.
This is also incredibly dismissive—it doesn’t show them that you take their anxiety seriously and validate their feelings. For people with anxiety disorders or high anxiety, they can’t “get over it” in a snap—it takes over their whole state of mind and body.
Instead, try this: Let them vent to you and respond throughout to show that you are listening and are there as an ear.
“Why don’t you write in a journal?”
Sure a gratitude or journaling practice can make you happier and relieve stress, but if you’re really anxious, simply writing in a journal isn’t going to cut it. And it makes it seem as though the anxieties are of a trivial manner, as if it’s just a normal little fear that can be washed away from paper and pen.
What’s more, it can actually backfire. “Sometimes, having your anxiety written down can just allow the person to experience anxiety over and over by reading what they have written,” she says.
Instead, try this: “Instead, suggest they try to calm their mind for just 60 seconds at a time,” Leikam explains. This way, you’re offering a more effective approach that they can do in the moment, to then see how they feel and what next steps to take. You are not giving them a reminder to come back to, she explains.
“It will all be okay.”
For those struggling with anxiety disorders, they’re not thinking that things will be okay—they are anxious! They are thinking the worst, they are scared—they can’t rationalize how things will be okay and calm themselves down. The mind works differently.
And “sometimes it’s not okay in the immediate future and people do have to go through some hard situations,” Leikam adds. Sometimes you need help, space, time, a solution—not all situations will have a favorable outcome.
Instead, say this: “Instead, ask the person, how can I help you during this tough time, what can I do to help,” Leikam says. This way, you’re offering help for a solution and can provide direct action.
“You should try yoga.”
Hitting a yoga class might make people feel less anxious, but for those with real, heightened anxiety or chronic anxiety, it’s way too simplistic to prove effective. And by saying this, it seems as though you don’t really understand how great of measure their anxiety is and you assume a simple 45-minute yoga class will get rid of all their problems. (Not so much!)
Plus, not everyone can do yoga, Leikam adds. “Yoga is great, but sometimes people have chronic pain or aren’t able to participate in a yoga class.”
Instead, try this: “Offer to go on a walk or for a drive with your friend,” Leikam says.
Here, you’re not saying that a drive or a walk will be a cure—you’re simply creating a distraction that’s not as closely associated with “de-stressing” and will let the anxious person enjoy your company without the pressure to get rid of the anxiety. By alleviating such pressure, they might be more likely to feel less anxious over time, she explains.