Written by Sylvie-Ann Dallaire
This week is dedicated to mental health awareness in Québec. This topic is too important for me to keep it for myself.
There are still too many prejudices related to mental health. I know it because I live through them. Judgments — whether through looks, words or even silence — show that society needs a great lesson in inclusion. However, prejudices are not always intentional. Living with a person who has a mental health problem is not easy.
So, I decided to write a short guide of what you should and shouldn’t say to someone who has anxiety in order to help you.
Each person is unique and may react differently to external stimuli, I ask you to read this post with a certain global perspective. Let’s start!
WHAT YOU SHOULD SAY TO SOMEONE WHO HAS ANXIETY
1. “I understand.“
I’m not exaggerating, these three words are literally a balm on my anxious heart. Even if you don’t fully and truly understand my condition, it really doesn’t matter. Knowing that the people we care about are there and that they make the effort to consider our perception of things is a win. We, anxious people, tend to think we are a burden and that talking about our concerns will only bother others. So, personally, just by making me understand that you care for me makes my week.
2. “What is the worst thing that could happen?”
I regularly ask myself this question during an anxiety attack. It allows me to put everything in perspective and rationalize things. Is it really that bad or is my mind playing tricks on me? Do I have a roof over my head, a stable job, a family and friends who love me? Often, these simple questions really help reduce my anxiety level. I can finally tell myself that everything will get back to normal.
3. “I’m there for you.“
Because even if you say that you understand, it’s important for me to feel supported. The words you say must still be thought out! Again, knowing that someone is ready to receive information about our condition is rewarding. Even if we know that what we’re about to tell you will seem exaggerated or foolish to you, knowing that we can count on your presence is worth all the gold in the world.
4. “How are you doing today?“
This question may seem trivial because it’s a common and even cultural practice to ask people how they are doing. We answer yes and move on to another subject. With anxiety, every day is a surprise because we react very differently to the turbulence in our environment and a small detail can literally turn everything upside down. Being interested in our current feelings is a really good way to show us, anxious people, that we are not just seen as a pack of nerves. Honestly, on days when my anxiety is at its highest, I can seem quite unpredictable. It may seem intense or even fake that in a few minutes my mood changes completely, but I promise you I’d rather trade places with you.
5. “How can I help you?“
Not everyone needs the same kind of help. Some people need to talk to express their thoughts, others need to take their minds off things. In addition, anxiety is a complex problem; there are several types of anxiety. Before you take the initiative to help an anxious person, make sure that your help will be well received, and to get there, nothing beats asking the question directly.
WHAT YOU SHOULD NOT SAY TO SOMEONE WHO HAS ANXIETY
1. “Calm down.”
This is the worst thing ever to say. These two words only make things worse. In fact, anxiety is not a disorder that can be controlled like the sugar level of a diabetic person. We can’t get rid of it that easily. If it were possible, I’d pay a lot of money to get rid of my anxiety. Anxiety concerns are much more advanced and complex, and cannot be solved by two or three deep breaths. I just want you to know that I’d really like to be able to calm down whenever I want. For example, if I have to wake up in the middle of the night and think about what I have to do, it’s very likely that I will get up at 2:32 AM to empty the cat’s litter box because I’m afraid it’s too full.
You asked yourself what’s wrong with me? That’s EXACTLY what I meant by prejudices.
2. “It’s all in your head.“
This comment is probably the one I’ve heard the most. It directly addresses the person’s concerns by confirming that its fears are not valid. On the contrary, ALL fears are valid because no one reacts in the same way to our environment. If I have any advice for you, try to be compassionate.
3. “It will never happen.“
As if we didn’t already know that. Don’t worry, that’s what we keep repeating to ourselves over and over again, too. Unfortunately, we can’t control the brain that screams louder than us. That’s why you have to help anxious people to find ways to MANAGE their thoughts rather than confirm what we already know.
4. “Work on yourself a little.“
Hmmmm, sorry, what? Anxiety is THE thing that makes me work on myself the most. If anxiety forces us to do something, it’s working on ourselves and know ourselves better, since it’s with self-knowledge that we are able to develop effective stress management strategies. Telling anxious people to work on themselves is like implying that it’s our fault that we are in this state and that we simply are cowards.
Anxiety disorders are far from being a matter of working on yourself. Every day, anxiety challenges me with an extra struggle. Every day, it confirms to me the reason why I’m fighting. Minimizing the state of the person dealing with anxiety really destroys one’s self-esteem.
5. “Get over it.“
The last comment, but not the least. Being told this kind of remark is 99.9% more likely to cause anxious people to withdraw into themselves and live their fears alone. The idea of people thinking they are a pain in the rear is eroding them from within. I know, it happens to me every time. Even if you, a non-anxious and “yolo” person thinks that it doesn’t make any sense to be afraid or to fall apart like that, just take a minute and realize that we already know that. Also, tell yourself that if we could just move on to something else we would.
Anxiety is an increasingly well-known disorder — from my observation over the years. Don’t worry, it’s not a fatality. If you live with anxiety, never forget that professionals are there to help you. Whether it’s at 811 or 1-866-APPELLE, someone is there.
It’s important to break out from loneliness and to talk about it.
This post was translated from French to English by:
My name is Aimy and I am a second year-student in translation studies. I discover my truths through my passion for literature, arts and culture. I have a keen eye for beauty, a lust for life. For me, every day is a chance to acquire knowledge and create. As Einstein once said, “creativity is intelligence having fun.”