Anxiety now surpasses depression as the number one mental illness affecting college students.  This is not surprising given that millennials face challenges that many prior generations did not face – namely, massive student loan debt and a weak job market.

The Yellowbrick Program created a fascinating (and slightly depressing) infographic guide on the long-term effects of debt on Generation Y.  Did you know that people with debt are more than three times as likely (compared to those without debt) to experience a mental illness, and 29% of those with high debt report severe anxiety?  Fewer than 9% of people who are in debt have no mental health problems.

1 in 4 people will experience clinical levels of anxiety at some point during their lifetime. The odds are high that someone you know suffers from anxiety.

One of the challenges of having an anxiety disorder is that there is still so much stigma surrounding mental health issues, and friends and relatives often say the wrong thing.

If you know someone who suffers from anxiety, here are seven things you shouldn’t say to them AND what you should say instead.

“Just calm down.”

Just calm down?  Gee, I didn’t even think of that.  Why didn’t I think of that?  All I need to do is just calm down!  Who knew?

When I was planning my wedding, people were constantly telling me to “calm down”.  It’s hard enough to be calm when you’re planning a wedding, but when you have anxiety, it’s nearly impossible.  Telling someone to “calm down” is a waste of time.  They are already well aware that they need to calm down, and they are trying to do so.  Yelling at them to calm down is only going to make them more tense.

“Snap out of it – think positive thoughts and stop worrying.”

Anxiety is not something you can just “turn off”.  Anxiety is extremely unpleasant and no one wants to suffer from anxiety.  I can guarantee you that if anxious people could stop their anxiety just by thinking positive thoughts, they would do it.  Changing your way of thinking actually is an important part of treatment for anxiety – it’s called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy – and it takes time, effort, and often a trained therapist.  It’s not as simple as “just thinking happy thoughts.”

“I know how you feel.  I’ve been stressed out too.”

Anxiety and stress are often used interchangeably, but they are two very different things.  Stress is what you feel when you have too many things to do, or you think you’re going to fail a final, or you have a fight with your significant other.  Anxiety, on the other hand, often comes out of nowhere and isn’t necessarily tied to an external stressor.

Stress typically goes away when the source of the stress is taken care of – when you finish your busy day, when you pass that final, or when you resolve the argument with your boyfriend.  Anxiety doesn’t have a set end point, and it can make you feel hopeless, depressed, and give you the illusion that you’re losing your mind.

“You’re being crazy/irrational/ridiculous.”

Calling someone crazy is just mean – it’s cruel to criticize someone for something they have no control over.  It’s also pointless to tell someone with anxiety that they’re being irrational – they are probably well aware that they’re being irrational, but knowing that doesn’t stop the fear.  Anxiety is not rational.

I am a stereotypical left brained person – I’m logical, analytical, and not in the slightest bit creative.  One of the most frustrating parts of my anxiety is that it isn’t rational, and I hate things that are irrational.  I can tell myself over and over that my worries are illogical and absurd, but that doesn’t make the anxiety disappear.

“All you need to do is pray.”

Don’t get me wrong – I believe prayer and faith can be very helpful with anxiety.  I pray all the time.  The problem with this advice is that it’s usually “all you need to do is pray – you don’t need [medication, meditation, yoga, music, therapy, etc].”

This is absurd if you think about how differently we handle physical health conditions.  Let’s imagine you were diagnosed with cancer.  Would you pray about it, forego all types of treatment, and hope that God would give you a miracle?  Probably not.  If you’re a religious person, you would pray your heart out, but you would also get chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, or whatever treatment your doctor would recommend for your situation.  You wouldn’t expect God to help you if you didn’t help yourself.

So if you’re a religious person, instead of “just” praying the anxiety away, pray that God will help you to find whatever is it that works best for you to treat your anxiety – whether that’s medication, counseling, listening to music, or more prayer.  Everyone is different.  Find what works for you.

“You don’t need drugs.”

Anxiety medications can have serious side effects, and the decision to start taking medication(s) is certainly not one to take lightly.  The benefits and risks should be discussed in detail with a trained physician or psychiatrist.  You may have legitimate concerns about anti-anxiety drugs, but judging or shaming someone for taking psychiatric medication is not okay.

I am a firm believer that what is right for one person is not always right for another – there is no “one size fits all” treatment for anxiety.  For some, medication may do more harm than good.  For others, meds may be the most effective treatment.  It is up to the person and his/her doctor to make that decision.

“You seem fine.”

I think “you seem fine” is actually meant to sound reassuring, but it invalidates your feelings.  When you tell someone how upset you are about your worsening anxiety, and they brush it off with a “well, you seem fine”, you don’t feel like you’re being heard.  It’s also frustrating because anxiety isn’t always visible.

Not everyone shakes or hyperventilates when they have a panic attack.  Many people with anxiety have learned to hide their anxiety very well – but that doesn’t mean they don’t feel it.  Listen to them when they tell you how they feel.  And if they prefer not to talk about it, don’t push them.  Listen when they’re ready to talk.

Now that we’ve talked about what you shouldn’t say, what should you say instead?

Try any of these:

I care about you.

You matter to me.

I’m here for you.

I’m listening.                                     

What can I do to help?


Other stuff you might like:

Tips and Tricks for Dealing with Anxiety
9 Reasons Why I Love Yoga
10 Frugal Ways to Get Fit
How I Lost 35 Pounds by Changing My Diet
Coping with Job Loss as a Millennial
Millennials aren’t entitled. They’re screwed.