To those with anxiety, don't say "don't worry"

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Robert Maurer

To those with anxiety, don't say "don't worry"

We often don't know what to say to anxiety sufferers. What do you think if instead of giving advice we just started being empathetic? Closeness and understanding are always a good start.

Written and verified by the psychologist GetPersonalGrowth.

Last update: 15 November 2021

What can we tell someone with anxiety? How to react in front of that friend, that sister or that person close to us who is on the verge of a panic attack? It often happens that you make recommendations like "calm down", "don't worry". However, these words can have the exact opposite effect of what we expect, although we utter them with all the good intentions in the world.

To start, anxiety is not a state that a person can control at willThis is demonstrated by the fact that the anxious brain works differently. There is no button to turn off nor one to start; the mechanism is more subtle. Given this, most of the time by giving affectionate advice we generate further pressure and worsen the situation of malaise.

Albert Ellis in his book Rational emotional self-therapy. How to think psychologically effective signals that anxiety generates misplaced mental anguish. It is an intense and devastating sensation, which completely limits the human potential. Now, an interesting aspect that is highlighted is that the first step to manage it in the best way is not to block it, but to accept its presence. Emotional pain is one more part of who we are, and no one is exempt from suffering from it.

When we are together with someone suffering from anxiety, therefore, we must avoid expressions such as "relax, don't obsess so much, stop worrying" or like "you're getting wet before it rains". With these sentences we will block communication, preventing the other person from giving a full account of what is happening to them.

The intensity of the anxiety is proportional to the meaning that the situation assumes for the person in question, even if the same essentially ignores the reasons for the anxiety.

-Karen Horney-

Avoid telling anxiety sufferers not to worry

Anyone with anxiety would love to be able to calm down. If there is one thing he would like most of all, it is to stop feeling that tightness in his stomach, the muscle tension, the tachycardia and the noise of the thoughts that are tangled and so difficult to control. When a person has to deal with this psychological reality, he often feels that he is on the verge of having a heart attack or losing control of himself altogether.

For this reason, telling anxiety sufferers not to worry is like encouraging the drowning person to get out of the water. He can't help it and he really needs to get more concrete help from us. And there is another aspect we need to consider: anxiety often arises without warning. Sometimes you don't even need to be in a more or less stressful situation, like a conference, job interview, medical appointment, etc.

Sometimes, the demon of anxiety arises in the most harmless and unsuspected situations: while we are talking on the phone, during a dinner with friends, when we go to the office or university bathroom, or even when we leave the house to go. at work.

In these cases it often happens that a loved one repeats to the person concerned that there is no reason to worry, that nothing will happen and that he is doing everything himself. These tips make the situation worse.

Less advice and more empathy

Avoid telling a person with anxiety not to worry. Don't even tell her to relax and take life more lightly. Do neither of these two things, for one simple reason: the brain prisoner of anxiety does not respond, remains at attention and is unable to process orders, advice and beautiful words of comfort. And if they do, the person will perceive our advice as useless because they just expect to receive empathy.

Sometimes the best thing is to say nothing. Just be there, stay close and let the person understand that we are by his side if he ever needs us. There will be time to look for the right strategies, but sometimes it is better to be that beacon of light, that fortress and that balance for those who are fighting their obstacles, their moments of crisis and their torments.

On the other hand, an aspect brought to light by some studies such as that conducted by the psychopharmacology department of the University of Chemin de Ronde, in Paris, is that the brain of the person affected by anxiety is a prisoner of substances such as cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine. It is very difficult to think clearly, so advice in the above circumstances is of little use.

What to say to those with anxiety?

If we are wondering what to say to a person suffering from anxiety, the answer is simple: instead of talking, we act. More than resorting to the advice, to the unhappy phrase paved with good intentions, we observe, we stay close and try to understand what is happening to her. Let's try to understand, first of all, that there are different types of anxiety and that what may work for some may not be the solution for others.

The right thing is to ask questions like "How can I help you?" or "I know you feel distressed right now and you feel like you have nothing under control, so, in the meantime, let's take a deep breath together."

Sometimes, just stay close, be calm and reassuring. Later, we could accompany the loved one to a specialist; in the meantime, however, the best thing is to know how to be there, to give affection and empathy. It's easier than it looks.

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