Written by: Meghan Emerson, MSMFT
When faced with a problem, we naturally desire to solve it. When that problem is a person we love suffering with anxiety, the quick-fix instinct can end up causing more damage and leave the anxious person feeling distant and misunderstood. Although often very well-intentioned, many people end up telling things to anxious individuals that are unhelpful or may even increase their anxiety.
To keep yourself from hurting your anxious partner, you need to increase your understanding of anxiety and your level of empathy. People suffering with anxiety feel like they are living in a world of fear and uncertainty. They share their anxiety with you to attempt feeling more connected and receive reassurance that they are not in danger.
There is only so much you can do to help an anxious partner and learning what and what not to say to an anxious person is a great start. Take a look at the following examples of what not to say and how you can better communicate your support and understanding.
- Get over it.
While the source of the anxious person’s anxiety might be hard for you to empathize with, trying to minimize the anxiety is invalidating. Although you may be trying to help the person focus on other things, a characteristic of anxiety is its ability to trigger ruminative thinking that makes it much more difficult for an anxious person to simply shrug it off.
Instead, try talking to the person about how they are capable of getting over it. I do not mean to list all the practical solutions to a problem, as that could be seen as condescending or annoying. You should focus on highlighting the person’s strength, perhaps by citing a previous time that he or she was able to overcome this particular problem or anxiety.
- Calm down.
It is almost a sure thing for an anxious person to feel disconnected from you when you tell them to calm down. If the person were capable of calming down on his or her own, that person would have done it already. Often, the anxious person wants nothing more than to calm down, and by highlighting the incapability of doing so, he or she can feel hurt and withdraw.
If you care for this person’s suffering and wish to help him or her calm down, try taking action by participating in a calming activity together instead of simply stating that he or she should calm down. Go for a walk, take a long shower, give him or her a massage, or try meditating. Such activities are very helpful in alleviating panic and anxiety in the moment.
- Everything will be fine.
While you intend this statement to have a calming effect, an anxious person can immediately poke through this reassurance by saying, there is no way that you can know that. That uncertainty is a big factor that fuels anxiety.
Instead of trying to reassure an anxious person that he or she has no need to be anxious, focus instead on reassuring him or her that it is okay to feel anxious. There is an element of shame associated with feeling anxious that makes it hard for some people to even acknowledge and talk about their anxiety with others. It can be helpful to reassure your partner that you care and do not judge him or her negatively for feeling that way. Let that person know that he or she is not a burden to you, and you can alleviate that secondary anxiety.
- I’m nervous, too.
If your partner comes to you and shares an anxiety with you, expressing your feelings right away without first acknowledging and trying to understand your partner can feel invalidating and dismissive. Even if you intend to just let your partner know that he or she is not alone, you need to first help your partner feel heard.
Anxiety is naturally a contagious emotion, and it is certainly possible that you share some of the same anxieties as your partner. It is okay to relate to each other about this, but be careful not to fall into an abyss of commiseration where you lose focus on how you both can overcome it. Take turns understanding each other’s anxiety, and make a point to focus on ways you can move forward together.
- What did I do?
As I mentioned earlier, we want to help our partners when they are suffering. Sometimes, this can lead us to attempt taking ownership of something we do not fully understand, like anxiety. However, you are not in control of another person’s emotions, and unless he or she clearly states that you contribute directly to the anxiety, there is no role you can take to solve the source of it.
Focus on the previously mentioned strategies that you can do or say to help your partner. Do calming activities together, tell your partner it is okay to feel anxious, and try to avoid saying things that could come off as invalidating, dismissive, or hurtful.
Anxiety is a complex and overwhelming issue. If it persists in causing you or your partner distress, consider seeing an individual or couple therapist to help you. There are many evidence-based approaches to overcoming anxiety, so have hope and remember that you are capable of learning new strategies to loosen its effect on your life.