“Keep Calm and Carry On” and Other Things You Shouldn’t Say to Someone with Anxiety

“Keep Calm and Carry On!” The popular catchphrase from the early 2000s sounds easy enough, right? Well for approximately 40 million Americans who suffer from anxiety disorders – the most common mental health concern there is – it’s easier said than done.

So what do we say to the 18 percent of the population whose anxiety, in one way or another, may paralyze their everyday life?

We sought the help of behavioral health expert, Dr. Alfredo Rivera, medical director for geriatric psychiatry at HCA’s The Medical Center of Aurora, to find out more about the mental disorder and to learn what to say and what not to say to someone with anxiety.

“Everyone has anxiety,” Dr. Rivera explains. “Anxiety is worrying about the future and fear is reacting to the present. If a combination of those two affect how you function daily, that’s when the disorder part comes in.”

You have to ask yourself, he says: “is this anxiety helpful in my life or does it hinder my life?”

According to Dr. Rivera, anxiety disorders cost the U.S. nearly 42 billion dollars a year in lost productivity.  “If you have a typical amount of worry, that’s less than an hour a day,” he says. “But for someone with generalized anxiety disorder, for instance, they may spend upwards of 300 minutes or six hours a day worrying. That’s almost half your day of worries.”

Unfortunately, there are some people out there – a loved one, a friend or even a colleague, who live their life in a constant state of worry. They don’t have to deal with this alone. There is professional help available, but support can start with you, too.

With help from Dr. Rivera, here are four things never to say to someone with anxiety:

“Chill out”

That’s not helpful, nor is it something they can do or they would have done it already. So telling them to “chill out” will not stop their anxiety.

“Don’t think about it”

The person with anxiety doesn’t know how to not think about it. In fact, all they do is think about “it.” At this point, “it” is probably engrained in their mind. So show some compassion – the person with anxiety can’t help the way they feel.

“It will be fine”

This might sound supportive but really it’s downplaying the person’s stress. People with the anxiety will distance themselves from those who think they’re helping them out when they’re actually not.

“Have a drink”

This is a horrible idea. And it’s part of our culture to recommend for someone to have a drink to calm down. However, anxiety disorders commingle with another behavioral health concern – substance abuse – and people unfortunately will become addicted to things that might calm them down like alcohol. That’s why people with alcohol histories have anxiety; they frequently go hand in hand.

So what should you say to someone with anxiety?  Here are three helpful things to tell someone battling anxiety, courtesy of Dr. Rivera.

“I understand why you’re so nervous”

This gives them support without judgement. Suggest that they try taking slow deep breaths; this will be helpful, too.

“Take it step by step”

This is the basis of formal cognitive behavioral therapy, and an excellent statement that supportive people can make with no training. It’s not an overwhelming process and it seems to help break it down. Slow down and take it step by step.

“This can be treated”

Focusing on treatment options, as opposed to judgement is great place to start. Encourage them to talk to their primary care physician, counselor or somebody in their church, just to get that going. Ultimately formal therapy is ideal, but people who have anxiety disorders may not take that first step. There’s a tendency to avoid rather than take it step by step.

Unfortunately people get used to living in an anxious state, Dr. Rivera says. “There’s a huge population that go on for 10 years before seeking treatment, trying to live their lives around anxiety. They say, ‘I’ll deal with it tomorrow.’ The problem is, the anxiety never goes away because tomorrow never comes.”

Seek help today.

If you suffer from anxiety or know someone who does, what are some other things you wish people would or wouldn’t say? Leave your thoughts in the comments. 

One in five Americans are affected by a mental health condition. Visit here for more information on behavioral health services at The Medical Center of Aurora, a hospital in the HealthONE system – a division of HCA.