The first time I had an anxiety attack, I was 15 years old and lying on the bathroom floor, gasping for air. I thought I was dying. Paralyzed on the tile, unable to move, and struggling for air, I weakly called out to my mom, at least wanting to say goodbye to her. When she burst through the door and saw me on the floor, she sat down next to me and made me explain what was happening. After listening, she calmly told me that I was having a panic attack and that anxiety disorders ran in my family. I told her that my chest was caving in, I couldn’t breathe, and my heart was leaping out of my chest; the phrase “panic attack” sounded too small to compare to the heaviness I was feeling. Yet, that’s exactly what it was.
Several years (actually, over a decade) and a few doctors later, my anxiety disorder is still a condition I struggle with on a daily basis. I’m not alone. 40 million other Americans suffer from one of the three different types of anxiety disorders: Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), Panic Disorder, and Social Anxiety Disorder. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “Each anxiety disorder has different symptoms, but all the symptoms cluster around excessive, irrational fear and dread.”
Over the years I’ve encountered some super insensitive people and maybe some people who are completely ignorant to the severity of anxiety disorders. With that being said, here are ten phrases you should steer clear of when a friend or loved has an anxiety disorder:
1. “Chill out.”
Well, bro, if it were that easy, I wouldn’t be having an anxiety attack, would I? Seriously, this phrase makes my skin crawl. First of all, commanding someone to feel a certain way will never work. Secondly, for a person struggling with anxiety, feeling like a disappointment just for not feeling a certain “normal” way can be a huge trigger and can increase anxiety tenfold.
2. “It’s not that serious.”
The definition of anxiety is IRRATIONAL fear and dread. More than half of the time, I understand that what I’m panicking about isn’t as serious as it is feeling to me in that moment. That doesn’t change the fact that I’m FEELING like it’s a huge deal because of the disorder. Don’t marginalize someone’s symptoms by downplaying their feelings.
3. “Why are you freaking out?”
Honestly, I’m freaking out because of the million thoughts running through my head all at once that I can’t process. It’s like when you’re running too many applications on an old computer and you can hear the gears turning and struggling to keep up and then eventually the screen freezes and your mouse won’t move. That’s what your mind/body feels like when you have anxiety.
4. “Just think about something else/ignore it.”
The problem is that we ARE thinking about something else. And something else. And something else. And something else. All at once. It’s too much. And as far as ignoring it goes….when has that helped any ailment, physical or mental?
5. You look bad/pale/sick.”
Thanks. You wouldn’t believe how many times this has been said to me. Once it was said to me in front of a group full of people I’d only just met by someone who knows I suffer from anxiety. That time it hurt the worst, mostly because I was painfully aware that I looked pale and sick. I had just returned to the table after having a full-blown, crying panic attack in the bathroom. I had just finishing calming myself a little, taking an anti-anxiety pill, when I returned to the table only to have this person immediately focus everyone’s attention on me by saying how “bad I looked.” Forgivable, maybe, if she hadn’t known. But if you know someone has anxiety, don’t cloak your concern with thinly-veiled insults.