Originally published October 30th, 2017
If there’s one thing that living with a mental health issue has taught me, it’s that human beings have a real talent for saying terrible things. This propensity for producing huge amounts of word vomit includes saying the completely wrong thing in a given situation; saying the right thing, but expressing it so badly that nobody knows what you really meant; or not saying anything at all when you really should have. I’ve been guilty of all three in the past, and I almost certainly will be again at some point in the future. Sometimes, it just can’t be helped – your mouth moves faster than your brain and you end up saying something utterly moronic and regretting it immediately. We all do it.
However, when it comes to interacting with people who have mental health issues, abiding by the phrase “think before you speak” becomes especially crucial. Even small, seemingly innocuous comments can play on a depressed or anxious mind for hours or even days to come. There have been so many times when people have said things to me, either unwittingly or deliberately, that have triggered anxiety attacks or betrayed a less-than-great attitude towards mental illness. One of the most irritating things (for me, at least) is people commenting on my illness when they’re clearly completely ignorant of what I’m going through. On that topic, I’ve decided to dedicate today’s blog post to things you should never say to someone who suffers from an anxiety disorder.
1) “Just stop worrying!”
Every time somebody says this to me – which is a lot, let me tell you – I just want to laugh hysterically until I can no longer breathe. There are a number of reasons why this piece of ‘advice’ is a) annoying and b) kind of offensive. Firstly, it implies that anxious people have some kind of agency, and can just turn their mental illness on and off like a tap. Like, if I COULD ‘just stop worrying’, trust me, I would. No anxious person actually WANTS to feel the way they do. The problem is, we don’t have a choice: the chemicals in our brain decide when we’re going to feel okay or not. Sure, there are ways to mitigate the anxiety: breathing exercises, CBT techniques, and mindfulness all spring to mind. However, we can’t just flick a switch and make the worry instantly disappear. If only.
2) “But you don’t even have anything to be anxious about!”
This sentence sums anxiety disorders up in a nutshell. The whole point of them is that the worry you experience is irrational: it’s not the ordinary feeling of worry you get before an important event or during a stressful time. It’s fear that sometimes appears from literally nowhere, and doesn’t have a clear reason for being. There can sometimes be a trigger for it, but usually the anxiety response isn’t always proportionate to the severity of the actual issue. So, while it may not seem to onlookers that I have ‘nothing to worry about’, you can bet that my anxious brain has either latched on to a non-existent issue, or caused me to worry excessively about the tiniest of things.
3) “Everyone has worries, you’re just too sensitive/ not trying hard enough!”
This is another comment I’ve been faced with quite a few times, especially from those who don’t quite believe that anxiety disorders exist. It’s another case of trying to shift all of the blame to the sufferer, and an extension of the “you can stop worrying if you want to!” myth. The implication is that everyone in the world experiences the same level of worry and that some people are just ‘better’ at fighting it off than others. This is blatantly untrue and can cause serious feelings of guilt or shame among sufferers of anxiety. The truth is, we do experience more intense and more frequent periods of worry than non-sufferers. Struggling to keep these thoughts at bay is not a sign of weakness or laziness: it’s the symptom of an illness, and nothing to be ashamed of or criticised for.
4) “Stop attention seeking!”
Ahhh, the classic “you’re only doing this for attention” jibe. Look. There may be a few people out there who’ve faked mental health problems for attention. These people are awful because, despite the tiny proportion of them that exist, they’ve made things a thousand times worse for the rest of us. Let me say it louder for everyone at the back: MOST PEOPLE WHO SAY THEY HAVE MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES, DO HAVE MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES. We do not just want attention; in fact, quite a few people with anxiety absolutely DO NOT want attention, because it’ll make us even more panicked. Stop projecting your stigma-fuelled misunderstandings on us, because it won’t help AT ALL.
Guess that turned into a bit of a rant, huh? It’s almost like I’m absolutely sick and tired of hearing unhelpful comments like this!!! Let me know in the comments if you’ve ever experienced anything like this: I have a hunch that I’m not the only one who’s faced this! Hope you all have a good week!