4 ignorant responses people with anxiety are tired of hearing.
Living with any type of anxiety disorder comes with many challenges in an individual’s life. Speaking from experience, one of the most frustrating of these challenges is the general lack of understanding from the people around me about what an anxiety disorder is. I certainly do not require that people understand what it is to live with an anxiety disorder before they join my social group, or even ask that they try to understand it if they want to be my friend, but I do ask that if they don’t understand it, that they do not make comments about how I handle that reality for myself. Over the years I’ve encountered hundreds of insulting assumptions and assertions about me in relation to my anxiety. Some of them meant to intentionally hurt me, and some that seem to come from well-meaning, but nonetheless ignorant, people.
Regardless of the source, these types of comments always leave me with the clear impression that the person has no idea what anxiety disorders are. Allow me to give you a few prominent examples of these ignorant responses to discussions or displays of my symptoms of living with general and social anxiety disorder:
Though this could be a well-intentioned response from someone who is witnessing me experiencing symptoms of anxiety, or listening to me describe said symptoms when recounting a story, it often does not feel this way to me. Of course, calming oneself and trying to manage the symptoms of anxiety is the ultimate goal of most individuals with anxiety, but being told to “just relax” can often seem condescending, as if I didn’t know that the solution was “just” that easy. As if the symptoms I am experiencing can easily be erased if I had known this simple wisdom.
Why didn’t I think of that?! Oh wait, I have, obviously. The nature of anxiety is that the symptoms are intense enough to surpass one’s efforts to simply relax. The excessive fears and worried thoughts, increased heart rate and queasy stomach are outside the immediate control of a person who has an anxiety disorder. So, your quick advice to “just relax” can not only come off as condescending, but it also invalidates the severity of the experience of an anxiety disorder.
“Don’t let yourself get worked up about it”
This piece of advice, though possibly given by a well-meaning speaker, is even more patronizing than the last suggestion to “just relax”. The word “let” is the most insulting part to me, because an anxiety disorder is not something that an individual either chooses, or allows, to happen. The symptoms of an anxiety disorder can affect every aspect of an individual’s life― irrational fears and worries about things that never bothered them before, a racing heart and nausea before meetings or outings that they used to enjoy, trouble sleeping, a decrease in appetite― these symptoms can completely transform a person’s life, no matter how hard they try to prevent it. When you suggest that they have the power to stop the symptoms by not allowing themselves to “get worked up about it”, you are implying that they have the control to stop this anxiety, and just choose not to.
There is a variant of this piece of advice, it’s even more insulting relative “I just don’t let myself get worked up about those sorts of things”. This one is just rude. But perhaps not intentionally. It could be that this person does not realize that the kind of anxiety associated with an anxiety disorder is not the same that one gets before a first date, or before a big exam, and that an anxiety disorder has symptoms that are impactful enough to affect an individual’s ability to function in their daily lives. This ignorance could possibly be excused, if the person genuinely does not understand the nature of an anxiety disorder, and did not mean to belittle these experiences. However, if you are speaking to someone who is familiar with what an anxiety disorder is, then this person is just being hurtful. To say to someone who has a psychological disorder that these symptoms are simply something they’ve “worked up” and that you would just not allow that to happen to yourself, and they shouldn’t either, is an incredibly insensitive comment to make.
“Everybody has anxiety, you just have to deal with it”
Yes, everybody does experience some form of anxiety in their lives. Most people get alarmed and anxious when they are at the top of a high cliff, if they encounter a wild bear, or get lost in a dark forest. Anxiety associated with these kinds of events is a normal, healthy part of human functioning. Anxiety has evolved with the human species and has acted as a sort of alarm system to alert us of potential dangers or threats to our health and survival. As mentioned above, it is also quite common for people to get anxious about an upcoming test or job interview, or when meeting new people, going to a new school, or starting a new relationship. Anxiety related to these types of events is also quite normal. Because we do not often know what to expect in new situations such as these― what questions will be on the test, or whether you will fit in at your new school― it is natural to have a little bit of anxiety around them.
This is entirely different from the experiences of an anxiety disorder, where the symptoms are prolonged, severe, and are preventing one from functioning in their daily life. To compare this experience to the excited anxiety children get in their tummies before Santa comes, or the anxious feeling before one’s first date, is implying that these two experiences are the same, and they most certainly are not. This comparison belittles the severity of the challenges faced by an individual with an anxiety disorder, and is an insult to their struggles.
“Don’t they have pills for that?”
Ah, now we get to the people who apparently do acknowledge that an anxiety disorder may be a serious condition. At least this is implied by their suggestion that you may need psychiatric medication. Though, I honestly do not believe that anyone who says this to someone with an anxiety disorder is making a genuine, helpful suggestion as to how one might manage their symptoms. No, this is more of a “can’t you just take something for that and stop it/stop talking about it” kind of remark. These people, you see, are experts, and know exactly what you must do to fix your anxiety. Oddly, most are not even doctors, yet, they know what is best for you (I hope the heavy sarcasm is coming through here). What comments like these often boil down to are attempts to dismiss your anxiety, or to offer you a simple, quick solution in an attempt to shift the focus of the conversation elsewhere. Or possibly, within groups of people who happen to look down on mental health disorders and psychiatric medications, which is not especially uncommon, to shame you. A variant of the familiar “have you taken your meds today?” jab.
Thought this list is not by any means exhaustive, it does generally cover many of types of negative feedback I receive from my family, friends, peers, and acquaintances in relation to expressions of my anxiety. I realize I laid on the sarcasm pretty thick at times and it may have seeped through that I am frustrated and annoyed by many of these responses, however I want to be clear in saying that I do not necessarily hold a grudge against the individuals in my life who say these sorts of things to me. Most of them genuinely do not know the messages they are sending me when they are saying these things. They do not realize they are being dismissive of my experiences and being hurtful when they make these types of comments. That is, until I make this clear to them. Some people know what they are doing and continue to do it (there’s a few in every group, right?), but most people who hear this are apologetic, and end up learning something from the conversation about the perspective of someone who lives with an anxiety disorder.
If you struggle with anxiety or a similar psychological disorder I am sure you have had your own experiences of invalidating and insulting remarks from people in your family or social group. Though oftentimes it is not worth the energy, and other times the person is just clearly trying to be hurtful, sometimes these remarks can be viewed as an opportunity to educate; to tell a person who doesn’t know it that what they are saying demonstrates an ignorance of your disorder and is actually quite rude and insulting. The people who matter will care, and will make an effort to stop. Enlighten the ignorant commentators in your life and ignore the rest, because who has time for other people’s hurtful, stubborn ignorance, right?