What NOT to Say to Someone With Anxiety/Panic
The whole wood seemed running now, running hard, hunting, chasing, closing in round something or – somebody? In panic, he began to run too, aimlessly, he knew not whither.
— Kenneth Grahame
Unfortunately, for many of us, intense fear is unavoidable—as are the well-intentioned but misguided reactions of others. Those we encounter during our harried peregrinations mean well, but their words can inadvertently amplify our distress.
If you meet someone suffering from anxiety/panic (and you will—we are legion), these are the five things NOT to say:
1) Calm down.
This is my favorite—and the one that elicits the strongest urge to punch someone in the face. Panic is not the least bit amenable to suggestion. If it were that simple, none of us would panic—ever.
Telling me to “calm down” places the spotlight on your discomfort (“OMFG THIS PERSON IS FREAKING OUT WHAT DO I DO!!”) while doing nothing to alleviate mine.
2) You don’t look anxious.
Not all sufferers sweat and tremble. In fact, many of us have become Oscar-worthy actors in hiding our discomfort.
It is an acquired skill, and a necessary one: since panic sufferers are not kindly looked upon, we are forced to keep ourselves concealed, chameleon-like, as we go about our daily lives.
When we tell you we’re anxious/panicking, believe us. Accusing us of lying—which is precisely what your doubt does, however unintentionally—only exacerbates our malaise.
3) Was it something I said/did?
No. If my panic/anxiety is of the social variety, then you are but the embodiment (just one person) of a much wider trigger (people).
It is true that someone who fears spiders will scream in terror at the sight of one; however, that individual spider is not the cause of that person’s terror—all spiders everywhere are.
Additionally, seeing your distress only worsens mine, as now I begin to feel guilty and self-conscious, full of regret that my inability to function has brought you discomfort.
Basically, unless you went out of your way to provoke my anxiety/panic, you are NOT to blame.
4) Is there anything I can do to ease your anxiety?
Again, your question is well-intentioned but pointless. Sensing your distress (and implicit sense of guilt—since you believe you can help me, you must, on some level, also believe that you aggravated my condition) only amplifies mine.
Your question calls attention to my unease, making me more self-conscious and sending my panic into overdrive.
Simply put: stay calm. If you don’t make a big deal out of my panic, then perhaps neither will I.
5) Do such-and-such; I heard it helps.
Many of us panic sufferers are amateur pharmacists/herbalists of the highest caliber. We have tried every remedy under the sun.
Being reminded of how few treatments have actually worked only increases our sense of futility.
That said, if you are a fellow sufferer who has found an effective remedy, then by all means tell us!