4 ways to support someone with anxiety and what not to say to them, according to psychologists

4 ways to support someone with anxiety and what not to say to them, according to psychologists
If you're trying to comfort someone with anxiety, make sure to listen to them and don't disregard their feelings.Justin Paget/ Getty Images
  • Instead, make them feel safe, distract them from their worries, and keep them in the present.
  • You should never tell someone with anxiety to stop feeling worried or that they are irrational.
  • Avoid calling someone with anxiety "crazy" or "insane" or that they're simple an "anxious person."

While most people get worried about things from time to time, some people have anxiety disorders that are characterized by a disproportionate amount of anxiety. An anxiety disorder can interfere with their ability to function on a day-to-day basis, for an extended period of time.

"The problem with anxiety is that it may contribute to difficulty thinking clearly, communicating distress in effective ways, and finding solutions," says Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Lenox Hill Hospital.

Sometimes, even people with the best intentions can make a situation worse by saying the wrong things to someone with anxiety.
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"Telling a person who is feeling anxious to calm down or stop feeling anxious can make a bad situation worse. It's like telling someone who is standing in the rain to stop feeling the rain," says Jeffrey M. Cohen, PsyD, an assistant professor of medical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center.

"Instead, provide support by using active listening, which is listening to understand, and by offering validation. Put another way, communicate to that person that you understand why they are anxious and that this makes sense," says Cohen.

Here are some of the things you should and should not say to someone with anxiety. Being prepared can help you be a better source of support for a friend, partner, colleague, or acquaintance who is experiencing anxiety.
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What should you not say to someone with anxiety?

According to Romanoff, these are some of the things you shouldn't say to someone who has anxiety:

"Stop worrying about it"

"This response is unconstructive. It implies the person suffering from anxiety is choosing this response. It places the blame on the person struggling and also suggests they can freely turn it on and off like a light switch. That's not how anxiety works. This seemingly helpful approach turns the relational dynamic to you against them. Instead, it should be both of you against the anxiety," says Romanoff. People with anxiety - depending on what makes them anxious - can help relieve it through meditation, eating right, getting enough sleep, and more. However, trying not to think about what's causing them anxiety isn't a proven relief method.
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"You're an anxious person"

"No one wants to be labeled for something that causes them immense stress and pain. Branding a person based on their anxious symptoms can be detrimental to their self-concept as this sends the message that others see their anxiety as a defining characteristic," says Romanoff.

What the research says: A small 2016 study that interviewed 17 doctors found that they prefer to avoid labeling people with anxiety, especially in the early stages of treatment, partly because of the stigma attached to the term and partly because labels can be difficult to get rid of.

"Why would you be anxious about that?"

"This response implies that they should not be anxious and their response is unjustified. By saying this, you're positioning yourself against the person, instead of aligning with them against their anxiety," says Romanoff.
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Anxiety is a condition that often has causes beyond the person's control. According to the National Institute of Medical Health, genetic factors, childhood trauma, and health conditions like heart arrhythmias or thyroid problems could contribute to the risk of developing an anxiety disorder.

"Just don't think about it"

"This implies that their anxiety can be solved easily. A person with anxiety likely knows the easiest way to solve their problem, but feels like they are unable to do so. It takes a good amount of vulnerability for a person with anxiety to share the inner workings of their mental processes. Eventually, they may stop coming to you and sharing what is distressing them." says Romanoff.

How should you talk to someone with anxiety?

These are a couple of different approaches you can take when you're talking to someone who is feeling particularly anxious, according to Aimee Daramus, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Urban Balance.
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  • How to help someone with anxiety

    • Help them feel safe: Try saying: "Right here, right now, nothing can hurt you," or "I'm here, I'll sit with you while you try to relax."
    • Talk them through a visualization: "Remember that time we went to the lakeshore? Think about how beautiful it was. Tell me about it."
    • Use mindful awareness: Help bring their attention to the here and now. Daramus says you can choose an object in the room, like an artwork, a pet, or a piece of chocolate, and have them examine it with as many of their senses as possible. She recommends asking them to describe what they see, what they hear, what it smells like, or what it tastes like.
    • Put things in perspective: For instance, Daramus recommends asking them "How big does this problem feel right now, on a scale of one to 10? One means you'll forget about it in a minute, and 10 is Thanos just snapped." She says to then ask them how big the problem actually is, to help them realize it's manageable. You can say: "I get that this issue feels huge right now. What's a small piece of it that we could solve together right now, and we'll worry about the next piece later?"
You should also be able to distinguish someone who is feeling anxious from someone who is having a panic attack. "A panic attack is an intense episode of physical symptoms of anxiety, like heart racing, sweating, dizziness, chest pain, or feelings of choking. It can show up out of the blue and leave you thinking you are going 'crazy,' having a heart attack, or going to die. It usually peaks in 10 minutes," says Cohen.

Important: Do your best to avoid using words like "crazy" and "insane" casually as these words can stigmatize mental health issues and may make someone going through a difficult time feel alienated.

If you are with someone who is experiencing a panic attack, you can try the same techniques to help them calm down. You can also encourage them to breathe deeply, meditate, or even exercise to help lower their heart rate.
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Insider's takeaway

Anxiety disorders are extremely common - it is estimated that over 30% of adults have experienced them.

Knowing the right things to say - and more importantly, what not to say - can make a big difference to the person who is feeling anxious. "If they feel blamed or stigmatized, or feel like you're upset at them, the anxiety is going to get worse instead of better," says Daramus. The best thing to do is to "listen to them. Hear them out. Oftentimes, the most effective and helpful thing you can do is listen completely to their experience without adding or trying to fix," says Romanoff.
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"A person with an anxiety disorder can benefit from concrete help," says Cohen. He recommends cognitive behavior therapy, and says you can find a therapist at FindCBT.org. He also suggests PsychHub.com for free educational videos on mental health.

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