“Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strength.”– Charles Spurgeon (10 Things)
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is one of the most common conditions among peoeple. In the United States alone, studies estimate that the number of people suffering from an anxiety condition is around 40 million. This number is likely to be higher, as it only includes the individuals that have been diagnosed by a medical professional.
To be clear, occasional anxiety is a normal state of mind. We all feel anxious when going on a first date, studying for an exam or going on a job interview, for example. However, chronic (long-term) anxiety can interfere with routine, day-to-day activities.
The Mayo Clinic uses the following symptom checklist to discover and diagnose Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), one of the most common types of anxiety:
– Persistent worrying or obsession about small or large concerns.
– Inability to set aside or let go of worry
– Inability to relax, restlessness, or the feeling on edge.
– Difficulty concentrating or feeling the mind “going blank”.
– Distress about making decisions for the fear of making the wrong decision.
– Carrying every option in a situation all the way out to its possible negative conclusion.
– Difficulty handling uncertainly or indecisiveness.
What shouldn’t I do?
When we or someone we love is affected by chronic anxiety, it can be a difficult time. Of course, we’ll feel at times that there is no control over the situation. However, while there are elements of the condition that can cause us to feel this way, there are things that we can do – and, just as importantly, not do – to help our loved ones.
It’s important to understand that people don’t feel that they can control their anxiety. Indeed, chronic anxiety is a chemical imbalance in the brain; as such, there are pathways that are set within the brain that make it difficult to alleviate their own symptoms – although it is possible.
When someone you know is affected by chronic anxiety, there is often a sense of guilt and hopelessness. To make matters more difficult, some people don’t understand the science behind the illness and could (often unintentionally) be judgmental and hurtful.
#1 – “Calm down”
Oh, yes, if it were only that simple. Not only is this unhelpful, but hurtful as well. You’d better believe that if someone with an anxiety condition could just “calm down”, they very well would have done so by now. Remember, this is not just a “phase” or a “moment”, it’s a condition. Just as someone with a fever can’t just cool their temperature, someone with anxiety cannot just “calm down”. Something that may be helpful instead is to just kindly instruct the person to “breathe”…this shows compassion and can be very helpful.
#2 – “It’s not serious”
Yes, it is serious. Mental disorders – chemical imbalances in the brain – are serious conditions. For a person with chronic anxiety, there are often physical symptoms associated with the disorder – trembling, aching, insomnia, headaches, heart palpitations, etc. The noise going on in the person’s head – along with the physical symptoms that often follow – feel quite serious. Looking for the right words? Try “It’s only temporary”.
#3 – “At least you’re healthy/have your health”
While the person may not be suffering any severe physical ailments, there is more to overall health than just the anatomical. Indeed, a mind/body connection is becoming more and more accepted among the scientific community, and anxiety disorders are a perfect example of this connection. How else can one explain the racing heart, sweaty hands and body aches that often accompany anxiety? Prolonged stress, including the stress caused by anxiety, can have a negative effect on a person’s body.
#4 – “You’ll get over it”
This statement is not acceptable to someone that has an anxiety disorder. Instead, this statement is likely to be interpreted as an equivalent of a shoulder shrug or an “eh”.Anxiety disorders can be overcome using both natural and medical intervention, but that doesn’t mean that someone can “get over it”, as “it” is often not in their control.
#5 – “Why are you anxious?”
It’s important to understand that the afflicted person often does not know why they feel the way that they do. As mentioned, anxiety is strictly a chemical imbalance. The brain is a complex organ; something that is still to be discovered. Until we fully know how the brain receives, processes and interprets all stimuli, there will likely not be a concrete answer to the “why” for many mental disorders.
#6 – “Think about something else”
This is often easier said than done. While someone may be able to divert their anxious thoughts for a short period of time, it is difficult to sustain such diversion. One important note: meditation and mindfulness practice has been shown to alleviate some symptoms of anxiety and depression. Instead of saying “think about something else,” perhaps suggestthat the person study meditation. Remember: suggest, but don’t insist.
#7 – “You look bad/terrible/sick”
Granted, nobody likes to hear this, but this is even truer if someone has chronic anxiety. Already self-conscious and on-edge, this is a statement that can really hurt. If you know that someone you care for has anxiety, do them a favor: stay away from using these kinds of statements.
#8 – “Everyone gets anxious sometimes”
We’ve established this fact. However, it doesn’t take away from the severity of the person’s situation. Saying something like this simply makes the afflicted feel more inadequate than they already do. Taken the wrong way, this can result in the person feeling isolated and unwilling to discuss their situation, which is the exact opposite of what we want as their loved ones.
#9 – “I have problems too”
Sometimes say this out of empathy; sometimes it just said out of outright selfishness. Regardless of the motive, this statement doesn’t help anyone – you’ll still have your own problems and they will compound their anxiety with worrying about your problems…this is unhelpful to say the least. Also, they are not oblivious to the problems of other people. We are all mature enough to understand that most of us – all of us? – have problems.
#10 – “There’s nothing to worry about”
Again, this is a statement that can be misinterpreted as either empathetic or crass. Anxiety is not a conscious choice, therefore it’s not as simple as someone deciding that there’s “nothing to worry about” and eliminate their condition. Besides, how do we know if there’s nothing to worry about? Maybe there is indeed something to worry about that we are unaware of. Instead, just lend an ear and make yourself available for them to talk if they wish.
One more thing…
It is important to note that there are ways that you can help. The purpose of this article is not to dissuade anyone from reaching out to someone that is suffering. Indeed, mentioning things like meditation, prayer, rest, seeing a doctor, etc. – especially if you’ve benefitted – are all great ways to show the person that you care. Just remember, that we cannot force someone to study meditation or seek treatment, as this must be the individual’s decision.
Again, suggest don’t insist while making yourself available for them. This way, your loved one with feel cared for and you will have done something essential: demonstrating your love and compassion.