Thoughts on Talking to People with Anxiety (Minus the List of “Shouldn’ts”)

I just googled the phrase “Things you shouldn’t say to someone with anxiety” and I was amazed at how many articles came up. There were seriously something like 50 stories! Mostly numbered lists, with various numbers: 11 things you shouldn’t say, 4 things you shouldn’t say, 20 things you shouldn’t say?! Who can remember 20 things you’re not supposed to say? I’m pretty sure I’d accidentally blurt one of them out when talking to an anxious person, because that list would be all I’d be thinking about! 

Is anyone actually learning anything from these lists? Sometimes I wonder if these sorts articles are more interesting to those of us who have anxiety disorders, rather than the people talking to us (I’ve certainly enjoyed reading my fair share). There’s a certain, “Yeah, damn right you shouldn’t say that!” feeling of justification for all the times people may have said one of these things to us and annoyed us. Now we have an official list confirming that they were wrong, wrong, wrong!

I don’t really like the idea of there being these set rules of things you shouldn’t say to people with anxiety. It makes us seem so fragile, like the slightest display of lack of understanding will send us into a panic, or make us angry, or crush our feelings, and we just wouldn’t be able to bear it (or be able to tell you how we feel ourselves). I think this sort of article can add to feelings of nervousness around people with anxiety and other mental disorders, and the last thing I want is for people to be uncomfortable around me. You can say anything you want to me! I can take it! I mean, I may not always be overjoyed at what someone says (who is?), but I’ll survive.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for stories that educate people about what it’s like to live with mental disorders – I’m all about raising awareness of mental health issues! But maybe a different approach would be more helpful. So here’s my take. Instead of making a list of “things you shouldn’t say to someone with anxiety,” I’m just going to share my experiences of interactions that have been helpful for me, and some that haven’t. It’s OK, nobody has to memorize any lists or anything. This is just my opinion, and it might help to provide a bit of insight into living with an anxiety disorder for those who don’t. And I’m just speaking for myself – I’m not going to generalize and say these ideas apply to everyone with an anxiety disorder. We’re all different! (And feel free to add your own thoughts/suggestions in the comments below!)

OK, here are some things I’ve found unhelpful when I’ve revealed that I have anxiety disorders (Generalized Anxiety Disorder and phobias in my case), or when someone already knows I have them…

– Having someone exclaim, “What? But you seem like such a nice person!” Well, mentally ill people can be very nice people. I mean, we can be pricks too, but so can everyone. Illness doesn’t define the sort of person you are.

– Being told, “You have such a good life, you don’t have anything to be anxious about!” Anxiety disorders aren’t caused by a difficult life, they’re caused by a messed-up brain. I know that I don’t really have anything to be anxious about, but that doesn’t stop my anxiety. If anything, it just frustrates me all the more. (I got sufficiently riled up about someone who said this to me that I wrote a whole blog entry about it a few months ago).

– Getting advice based on the other person’s own, non-disordered experience. “Oh, you have an anxiety disorder? You need to take a lavender-scented bath, that always helps me when I’m stressed.” I appreciate that people are just trying to help, but my disorder is completely different from garden-variety stress, and advice like that just makes it sound like that person thinks we’re the same. We’re not. I have an illness, they don’t. I don’t need a lavender-scented bath, I need therapy and medication.

– Sometimes I feel like people who know about my anxiety disorders are warily watching me, waiting for me to have a panic attack or something – actually, they sometimes look more panicked than me! But full-on panic attacks aren’t a feature of my illness – not all people with anxiety disorders have panic attacks. In fact, panic disorder is its own type of anxiety disorder. 

– And there’s no need to react like this is a big, sad deal, like I’ve just revealed that I have a terminal illness. It’s OK! I’m OK! It’s just something I deal with.

 

Now in the interest of trying not to sound like a Negative Nelly, here are some thoughts on what makes me happy when I tell someone about my anxiety disorders…

– When they just relax and take it in stride. If I was going to make a general suggestion, I’d say imagine how you’d react if someone just told you they had a chronic physical condition, like migraine headaches. It’s nice to show concern, but try not to get all weird.

– I’m usually slightly/somewhat/really nervous to reveal my anxiety disorders to people, thanks to the usual stigma around mental illness. It means a lot to me when someone conveys to me that they still like/love/respect me (depending on the relationship!). It’s a total bonus if someone tells me something along the lines that they appreciate my courage in being open. (Us anxiety people tend to have a lot of negative feelings about ourselves, so hearing a compliment like that is a real gift).

– It’s nice if the person I’m speaking to tells me that they have a friend or family member with a mental illness, or even that they themselves have struggled. It makes me feel understood and accepted (bearing in mind that everyone’s experience of mental illness is different).

– I’m happy for people to ask questions about my illness, and I’m quite enthusiastic about filling them in on things they may be curious about. For example, I’d be totally fine if someone asked me, “So what exactly is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?” or “Is that something you’ve had for a long time?” Maybe don’t get too personal; again, just imagine the kind of questions that would be appropriate if someone revealed that they had a chronic physical illness. (I’m big on mental health awareness, so I might be more open to questions than some people, but it’s not hard to tell how comfortable someone is in answering questions.)

– Like everyone with an anxiety disorder, I’ll have days when I might look or sound tired or distracted or wound up. It can be nice if the people closer to me ask me (in a supportive way) how I’m doing on those days. I might not always give a particularly helpful answer, but I do appreciate the concern. It’s not necessary (or typically helpful) to make suggestions on how I could feel better, it’s just good to feel supported and listened to. And there’s really no need to worry – it’s not an emergency when someone with anxiety is having a tough day (it happens pretty regularly), so don’t be alarmed!

– I guess the most important request I would make of someone I’ve told about my anxiety disorders is to keep treating me exactly the same as they did before. This is an illness that I’ve been dealing with for a long time in one form or another, well before most people in my life knew about it (including me, actually). I’m still the same person I was before people found out about my illness. No one has to start treating me as though I’m made of glass or anything. I’m good! We’re actually pretty tough, us anxiety people. We’ve had to be.

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