Being a caregiver of someone with anxiety is exhausting, emotional, and frustrating. You want to help, yet the comments and suggestions that seem so obvious may be the worst thing your loved one needs to hear. In this article, Laura Fleetwood shares 6 things to avoid saying to someone with anxiety, and 6 alternative responses to help your loved one with anxiety feel cared for.
When you learn that someone you love is struggling with anxiety, it can often be a shock. Many times, she might appear like she has it all together. She may be a top student, successful in her job, and the last person you’d think had to struggle to get out of bed that morning. Yet, your perception of her life doesn’t match the internal physical and mental struggles that she’s dealing with on a daily basis.
Please allow me to be blunt—from someone who has been there: In order to help her through this difficult time, you need to get over that outward perception. People with anxiety are good at hiding it. That does not mean they aren’t suffering, it means they are suffering more. It takes intense energy and effort to live when you feel like you are dying inside.
I know you want to help. I know you are worried and frustrated. Yet the comments and suggestions that want to roll off your tongue because they seem so obvious, may be the worst thing your loved one needs to hear to feel safe and loved. I hope this list of helpful (and unhelpful) responses will provide you with some tools to help you support your loved one more meaningfully.
WHAT NOT TO SAY #1: “Calm down.”
Thanks, Captain Obvious. The very definition of anxiety is that you are unable to calm down. To the outside observer it may seem like your loved one is displaying an unwarranted level of angst for the situation. This isn’t her fault, and it isn’t something she can always control in the moment. Telling her to calm down just reminds her that she can’t.
WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD: “Breathe with me.”
Give her something practical to do that will engage her relaxation response. Remind her to inhale deeply and exhale as long as she can. As you do this with her, her body will begin to relax. In the midst of an anxiety attack, she is so scared and stuck inside her head that this simple reminder to breathe will help immensely. The fact that you are doing it with her reminds her that she’s not alone. This is a great thing to do even if you aren’t with her in person. You can do it over facetime or on the phone.
WHAT NOT TO SAY #2: “You’re fine.”
At this moment, your loved one does not feel fine. Her insides feel like they are on fire and her mind is imagining worst-case scenarios that are scary. She feels anything BUT fine.
WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD: “I’m here. I love you. I’m not going anywhere.”
Anxious people need constant reassurance that they are not a problem and that you are not going to leave them because of their struggles. Your loved one is keenly aware of the toll that her struggle is taking on you, and it gives her one more thing to be anxious about. No matter how many times you’ve told her this, please keep telling her again and again.
WHAT NOT TO SAY #3: “You’re overreacting.”
It’s true that she most likely IS over-reacting. That’s what anxiety does. However, pointing it out is not helpful and will immediately put her on the defensive and make you the enemy. As a support figure, you want to always show you are on her team.
WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD: “Tell me what you are worried about right now.”
Get her talking and sharing. You don’t even have to say anything in response. Simply nod your head in affirmation, listen intently, and give her a hug. When she is finished say, “Thank you for telling me. It helps me understand what you’re going through.”
WHAT NOT TO SAY #4: “It’s going to be okay.”
You can’t promise that whatever situation your loved one is experiencing is going to work out. It may not work out. It may get worse before it gets better. We simply don’t have that kind of control over life.
WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD: “You are going to be okay.”
While you can’t control situations, you can be confident that God is going to work the good through even the worst of circumstances. Tell her this. Remind her that outcomes are out of our control, but God walks with us, heals us, and restores us through them.
WHAT NOT TO SAY #5: “It’s all in your head.”
You need to know that your loved one is experiencing very real physical symptoms due to her anxiety. These symptoms feel horrible and don’t simply just “go away.” Often our body is the first to warn us that something is wrong.
WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD: “What is your body telling you right now?”
Help your loved one to scan her body and see where the tension is. Being able to identify the physical sensations and recognize they are the body’s way of helping us rather than harming us can go a long way in reducing our fear of the symptoms. Get curious about what her body wants her to know.
WHAT NOT TO SAY #6: “You haven’t been praying enough. God will heal you. Just trust Him more.”
An anxiety disorder is a complex issue that is impacted by physical, emotional, and spiritual health. One aspect is not more or less important than any other.
WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD: “God is walking with you every step of the way.”
Instead of putting the pressure on your loved one to do the work, remind her that she can simply RECEIVE God’s love and grace. He does all the work for us. In our weakest moments, all we have to do is reach out our hand to let Him lead and love.
OFFERING YOUR PRESENCE
I know that being a caregiver of someone with anxiety is exhausting, emotional, and frustrating. What I want you to remember is that simply being there for them is the most important role you can play. You don’t have to fix her. You just need to listen and love. God has put you in this situation for a reason—because your loved one needs support. As hard as it is, return to this list of suggestions again and again, as often as you need to be reminded. And remember to take care of yourself, too. Find time to fill up your life in ways that bring you joy, trusting that, ultimately, God WILL provide a way through for you both.
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