How to Respond When Someone’s Anxious

From an evolutionary perspective, our brains do not like to be satisfied with what we have. Our brains also like to prepare us for things that might happen in the future.

Sometimes, these two functions go crazy and a person ends up with ANXIETY. In more severe cases, an Anxiety Disorder.

Anxiety is like the magic stress juice, Adrenaline, that is supposed to give you energy when you need it. But instead, Anxiety gives you negative energy when you don’t need it and too much anxious energy can be crippling.

Over the years, I’ve had a lot of encounters with different people wherein I felt it would benefit our relationship to tell them about my Anxiety issue. This happens particularly when I’m having an anxiety attack or have been having a bad anxiety time and can’t do things we would normally be able to do together.

Many people will give me a head pat and tell me they’re sorry I’m having Anxiety. THIS IS THE RIGHT WAY TO APPROACH IT. Some might respond with similar understanding but leave out the head pat. THIS IS ALSO JUST FINE.

But more often than that, I get people who decide they can fix my problem by telling me why I’m wrong to feel the way I feel. This special response comes in a few terrible flavors:

The Secret

Some years ago, this philosophy went around saying that your attitude attracts things to yourself. If you want good things, you have to VISUALIZE. This was good for most people but it implied something dangerous for Anxiety sufferers. If you VISUALIZE bad things, those bad things will happen.

Telling me that my anxiety over a bad thing happening is going to make the bad thing happen IS GOING TO MAKE ME ANXIOUS ABOUT MY ANXIETY. That’s all it’s gonna do. I’m not gonna realize: hey, this illogical stress response is illogical and I should stop myself from having it. If I could stop myself from having Anxiety, I WOULD STOP MYSELF FROM HAVING ANXIETY.

Check Your Privilege

This is another approach that really kills me. People who use this approach think they’re giving you perspective and reminding you that you have it pretty good. What they’re really doing is telling you that other people have it so much worse than you do and that you should FEEL BAD about the ILLOGICAL STRESS RESPONSE THAT YOU CAN’T CONTROL. So instead of just feeling anxious, you get to feel anxious and guilty. They hand you a good deal of shame to go with your anxiety without actually helping you with the anxiety.

You Don’t Have To Be Anxious

This is some ableist bullshit right here. They aren’t even pretending to try to help in this case. They’re straight up telling you that what you’re facing isn’t actually a problem BECAUSE IT IS NOT A PROBLEM FOR THEM. That means that whatever you’re going through is weakness and you can just CHOOSE to get better.

But we all know that Anxiety isn’t something anyone would choose to have. It’s a response in our brains that can be triggered by a fast heartbeat, loud noises, flashing lights, or a single troubled thought.

Like all privileged explaining, these responses invalidate and often shame the Anxious person, making the Anxiety worse.

If you really want to help someone with Anxiety, don’t try to fix their Anxiety. You can remove the trigger and you can try to reassure them that things will be okay, but don’t tell them that their feelings are wrong. Don’t tell them that they’re self-centered or selfish for feeling that way, and especially don’t tell them that the think they’re afraid of is going to happen because of their anxiety.

So, most importantly, let me reiterate the CORRECT APPROACH.

Tell them you care. Tell them it’ll be okay. Tell them you’re sorry they’re having a tough time. Possibly give them head pats.

Reinforcing Anxiety, Guilt, and Shame = Bad.
Sympathizing and giving head pats = Good.

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