What Not to Say to Your Anxious Loved One

Communication strategies for family and friends of GAD sufferers.

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Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), like other anxiety disorders, can take a toll not only on the sufferer, but on loved ones as well. GAD is known to be associated with stress and strain in intimate relationships. The condition can tax family and friends in a variety of ways. At the same time, friends, partners, and family members of those living with anxiety can be critical in helping that individual to improve and become less anxious or avoidant.

Here is a sampler of less-than-helpful, albeit very common, reactions that loved ones may find themselves expressing at some point:

  • “Don’t worry about it.”

Telling a worried loved one not worry about something that seems irrational or unlikely is a natural impulse, but it can come off as flip or patronizing. People with GAD often know that they are worrying excessively, so hearing any variant of “it’s no big deal” might be experienced as insensitive. These individuals desperately wish that they could stop themselves from worrying; the worry, after all, feels uncontrollable and can be extremely distracting from other responsibilities.  

Alternatives: To express support, you might instead say “I know it’s hard for you not worry about this” or “It’s OK; I’m by your side.” Or you could simply ask, “How can I help?”

  • “Everything will be fine.”

Reassurance is a very natural response to anxiety. The problem is that for someone with GAD, reassurance (if it works at all) will only quell the anxiety for the short-term.

Offering reassurance can also lead to pattern of repeated asking. In large doses, this may stress you out or lead to irritation with your loved one.

Alternatives: Instead of providing reassurance, consider trying to help your loved one challenge their assumptions by asking, “What do you think will happen? How likely is this? If it does happen, how will you deal with it and how might I be able to help?”

  • “If you are so concerned, I can take care of it for you.”

This kind of response would be an indicator of over-functioning for your loved one. This is when you take on the other person’s worry as your own and problem-solve for them. This, like reassurance, can take a toll on you over time and it may promote avoidance. Avoidant behavior essentially prevents the anxious person from learning how to function in the face of fear.

Alternatives: Encourage your loved one to challenge anxiety, with your support. With their permission, you might offer to help generate an attack plan: “Let’s see if we can come up with a way for you do what you need to do even though you’re feeling anxious about it.” If you or your loved one feel uncomfortable problem-solving together, this is can be a wonderful opportunity to encourage him or her to get help from a mental health professional: “I think a therapist would have a lot of experience helping people with this kind of thing. It’s always good to get some extra support.”

  •  “Your worrying is driving me crazy.”

It probably goes without saying that this is a counter-productive remark to make to someone with an anxiety disorder. It may make that person feel ashamed or embarrassed. The result might be that your loved one will feel less comfortable sharing his or her struggles in the future.

Alternatives: Even if you’re feeling impatient, take a deep breath and try to express empathy for your loved one’s situation. “It must be hard to worry like this; I can feel how exhausting it is.” You might recommend that the person takes a moment to relax by asking, “Is there something calming to do for a while to give yourself a break from your anxiety?” or by suggesting a brief, distracting activity.

Remember, the single best way to help someone with anxiety is to make sure that you are managing your own stress and worry well. If you find yourself overly worried about your loved one, or in need of help in finding the best words to help, speak with a mental health provider about your questions and concerns.

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