Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from my friend and colleague, Jenee Day.
Jenee is a long-time anxiety sufferer who now shares her experiences in an effort to help others via her podcast, YouTube channel, and through her coaching and writing. Jenee is the author of “Fear Itself: How Battling Anxiety Brought Me Inner Peace.”
The Fear Itself podcast is also available now on most podcast platforms.
It’s 2 a.m.
My heart is racing and I shoot out of bed, unable to sit still. My breathing is ragged. My skin feels clammy to the touch.
Wild-eyed and frantic, I pace my bedroom. Back and forth and back and forth, squeezing my eyes shut tightly in the hope that if I just ignore this feeling, it will go away. It doesn’t.
What is happening? Why do I feel this way? How can I make it stop?
For someone who clings to the illusion of control in my everyday life, this is my worst fear being realized. Last night, everything was fine. And tonight, I opened the door to my closet to find that there really is a boogeyman. I feel ashamed. Guilty. Broken.
After an hour or so of pacing with no end in sight, I know I need to wake my husband. I need help, but I am terrified to ask for it. I am afraid he’ll think I’m crazy. I’m afraid he might be angry. I’m afraid he might leave me because of my sudden—maybe permanent—break.
Neither of us knows it yet, but how he responds in this moment of crisis will be critical to my suffering and my recovery.
How do we love others well when they suffer from anxiety?
If you are in a relationship with someone who suffers from anxiety, it can be difficult to know what to say.
Here are phrases that were not helpful (even insulting) when I was having an anxiety attack. I strongly encourage you to avoid saying them if you genuinely want to help.
, and some that I found to be hugely supportive and encouraging.
3 Things You Should Never Say to Someone Feeling Anxious
1. ‘Everything happens for a reason.’
I don’t like this one because it’s so trite and dismissive. What’s the follow-up to this? What possible reason could explain what is happening right now? Simply put, it is not helpful and it is not true.
2. ‘Just calm down.’
This probably doesn’t require much explanation for those who have anxiety.
For everyone else, I’ll explain in two points: 1.) If it were that simple, I’d have already done it and, 2.) Anxiety really has nothing to do with calmness. The logical brain already KNOWS that nothing is going on, but the logical brain isn’t driving the bus here. Telling someone to “calm down” trivializes pain and sounds condescending. No one needs that.
3. ‘You just need to have faith.’
A phrase that still rouses rage when I hear it.
When a “friend” said this to me, I felt like she thought my panic attacks were my fault; suggesting that if my faith in God was strong enough, I wouldn’t be panicking.
It was confusing and hurtful, and made me question a lot of things I thought were true about myself and about my creator. In hindsight, I can see that this person had her own issues to sort through and was projecting judgment on me, but at the time I was crushed and bewildered, thinking that I was somehow not doing Christianity the right way or with enough sincerity.
In reality, I was more sincere and more of a truth seeker than I had ever been. Bottom line: This is just a mean thing to say. Please don’t ever blame someone for their trauma.
3 Helpful Things You Can Say to Someone Suffering from Anxiety
Most people out there with loved ones suffering with mental illness do genuinely want to help.
Here are examples of things you can ask or say that are actually helpful.
1. ‘How can I help?’
This question is great, because it removes any pressure. An open question like this gives me—or the anxiety suffer—the power, and a little bit of a voice in a situation where I (or they) feel like no one can hear us. Sometimes, the only thing I need is for someone to listen.
2. ‘My sister/brother/uncle/dog walker had anxiety.’
Absolutely, positively, tell me all the stories and bestow on me ALL the knowledge.
Researching during The Terror was a daunting task. I would listen to anything anyone had to tell me about anxiety cures. I don’t think that all people suffer from anxiety for the same reasons or due to the same triggers, but I am always willing to try something to find out what works for me. It may be something I can add to my anti-anxiety arsenal.
Relating someone else’s struggles, successes, and methods of coping are always appreciated.
Just say yes.
This was one of the most helpful and selfless acts my husband could do for me on a daily basis.
If I asked him to drive me around and look at houses all day (because it calmed me), he said yes. No matter what the request he said yes. He even got us cable TV, which we didn’t have previously, because having the local news made me feel like I had a connection to the outside world.
It may sound silly, but it made sense to me at the time, and it made me feel less trapped. So he said yes and made it happen.
Similarly, my dad said yes when I wanted to sit in his living room and rock in his rocking chair until midnight because I was afraid to be home alone. My stepmom said yes countless times when I needed company, allowing me to pace in her sewing shop for hours while she worked. She said yes to FaceTime chats and yes to bike rides.
When lack of control is a trigger, allowing an anxious person to make small decisions—what to eat for lunch, whether to drive to the store—can help us feel steadier on our feet.