6 Things to Never Say to Someone With Anxiety

Instead of saying something potentially hurtful, ask if you can give your loved one a hug or go for a walk with them.
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Knowing what to say when an anxious friend or family member opens up about their fears or worries can be tough. You want to be helpful, of course. But sometimes the things we might think will ease a person's anxiety can actually end up making the situation worse.

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"Because anxiety involves worrying already, saying something that's perceived as critical can perpetuate negative thoughts that the person is already thinking about themself," says Melissa Green, PsyD, an Atlanta-based licensed clinical psychologist who treats anxiety and trauma.

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The most helpful responses, instead, tend to be gentle and serve as a reminder that you're there for them. "Anxiety can feel unsettling. It's really about putting yourself in the person's shoes and helping them, because they feel alone in what they're feeling," explains Kelley Kitley, LCSW, a Chicago-based licensed clinical social worker who treats anxiety and depression.

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So what kinds of comments should be off limits, and what should you say instead? Here are six common phrases that are ineffective for people with anxiety (and often hurtful), plus the approaches that might actually help the person feel better.

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1. 'Just Stop Thinking About It'

Not​ thinking about a worry or problem is the very thing a person with anxiety struggles with the most, so telling them to simply stop isn't helpful.

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"People with anxiety live in their heads a lot of the times. They make up scenarios, and the thing they have the most difficulty doing is stopping or slowing down those thoughts," Kitley says. "If they could turn off the thought, they would."

The response is also dismissive. Instead of trying to learn more about the person's worry or figuring out a way to help them work through it, you're basically telling them that you don't want to hear about it anymore.

What to Say Instead

Instead of shutting down the conversation, Kitley recommends helping the person talk through their worry or fear by discussing worst case scenarios together. Because much of anxiety stems from a fear of the unknown, talking through these situations can help a person with anxiety feel more in control, like they have a tangible plan.

"They're already thinking of the worst case scenario. So ask them what the likelihood of it happening is, and if it does happen, what they would want to do about it," she says.

2. 'You're Overthinking It'

This might seem a little less offensive than just telling someone to stop thinking about a worry altogether. But remember, people with anxiety need to have a sense of control.

"If they can think through all the what-ifs and how they'll deal with all the possible scenarios, they'll feel more prepared," Green says.

In that case, telling someone they're overthinking something might just make them feel like they're failing at managing their feelings, and again, shuts down the conversation, she adds.

What to Say Instead

Rather than deciding when the person has thought too much about a problem, validate the emotional work they've done and try to help them reach a resolution.

"Give them an opportunity to say what they've thought through, then tell them that it's a thorough plan," Green says.

You may be able to give the person a sense of closure by saying something like, 'It sounds like you've thought of everything,' or 'It seems like you're as prepared as you can be.'

3. 'Don't Worry! It's Not a Big Deal'

To the other person, it definitely ​is​ a big deal.

"Saying 'don't worry' minimizes or downplays the issue," Kitley says.

That can cause the person to feel A) like they're crazy or that there's something wrong with them for worrying about this, or B) hurt because it now seems like you don't care about their problem. And you definitely don't want to make either of those things happen.

What to Say Instead

Kitley points out that sometimes we tell someone not to worry because we're afraid that engaging with their problem will make the situation worse. But there's a way to keep the conversation going without sending things into a downward spiral: Just ask the person how you can help them, Kitley says.

If they need to keep talking through their anxiety to gain control over it, listen. If it seems like the person is getting repetitive, "remind them that you've already talked that point over," Kitley says.

And if, at some point, you feel like you can't keep engaging, set a firm but caring boundary. "You can suggest that the person write down their feelings, because the person can then revisit their feelings on paper and not exhaust their support system," she says.

4. 'Calm Down'

Nobody​ likes being told to calm down, whether they've got anxiety or not. "It just adds fuel to the fire. It feels unsupportive," Kitley says.

When you tell someone to calm down, you're basically telling them they just need to move on — that you don't want to deal with their feelings.

What to Say Instead

Rather than tell the person what to do or feel, acknowledge what they're feeling and ask what you can do to help, Kitley recommends. Be prepared to offer some suggestions if the person isn't sure, like asking if they'd like a hug or want to take a walk.

"Physical touch and activities can help calm internal feelings of anxiety," Kitley says.

And if your suggestions are rejected, ask them if they just need some space. That's a way to gently back off without making the person feel like you're just walking away from them.

5. 'Everything's Going to Be Fine'

Here's yet another phrase that shuts down conversations and makes the anxious person feel alone.

"It sends the message that the people around them can't support them or tolerate their emotions, and then they're stuck feeling helpless because they're dealing with it by themselves," Green says.

Plus, can you really say with 100 percent certainty that everything really ​is​ going to be fine?

What to Say Instead

To offer more support, first let the person talk through their worries. "Not having an opportunity to talk creates more anxiety," says Green.

Then, after they've gone through things once, try to move the focus on to something the person can do to feel more empowered. Green is a fan of heading out for a walk. "Any kind of movement will help discharge that pent-up energy you get from being in that fight-or-flight state of anxiety," she says.

6. 'Just Breathe!'

Breathing exercisescan​ be helpful for anxiety. Deep belly breaths help balance the body's autonomic nervous functions, which in turn can reduce feelings of anxiety or stress, according to the Mayo Clinic.

But telling someone to "just breathe" probably won't encourage them to stop and do it. "It can make someone feel like there's something wrong with them, like they need to go over in the corner and breathe," Kitley says.

What to Say Instead

A more helpful move? Ask the person if they'd like you to take some deep breaths with them. "That allows you to be part of the solution instead of telling someone to do something or offering a generic suggestion," says Kitley.

Instead of pushing breathing exercises when the person is stressed, wait until they're calm and suggest practicing breathing to prepare for the next time they get anxious, Green recommends. She likes square or box breathing exercises, which involve inhaling for four counts, holding the breath for four counts and exhaling for four counts.

"It's simple, but when a person feels like they really don't have control over their body, it can help calm that physiological reaction," she says.

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