a graphical representation of a student suffering from anxiety

5 things to avoid saying to students suffering from anxiety

Young adults suffering from anxiety are everywhere; how can we better support them?

5 things to avoid saying

Here are five things I’ve heard educators say to students with anxiety that are not only unhelpful, they are detrimental; removing these statements from our repertoire is a healthy starting point.

1. “It’s going to be okay.”
What’s going to be okay? The anxiety being felt? A comment like this is too general and comes off as dismissive. Anxiety doesn’t feel okay or fine. It feels overwhelming. Clinical anxiety isn’t a feeling that comes on because of one specific, identifiable reason. It’s not like being nervous for a test or a meeting. Anxiety is panic, worry, discomfort that sets in out of nowhere. Those with anxiety have to think deeply about why they’re feeling anxious. Nerves have a lifespan, but anxiety does not.

2. “Just relax.”
Anxiety is a silent nemesis. More often than not, a person’s affect doesn’t match his or her effect. A person with anxiety feels panic but is likely acting quiet and reserved. In fact, what they are trying to do when the anxiety sets in is exactly that … relax. You’re not telling them something they don’t already know or aren’t already doing.

3. “Don’t worry.”
If only the anxiety sufferer had thought of that! Anxiety strikes overthinkers. The internal conversations that occur happen ad nauseam and run the gamut. From thinking themselves into the anxiety in the first place to begging and pleading with themselves to breathe and not worry about it, they’re already working on it.

4. “Everyone gets anxious.”
Everyone does get anxious. Not everyone, however, has anxiety. Being anxious makes us more aware of our surroundings; it’s how our emotional brains are wired. Anxiety, on the other hand, is a miswiring of our brains. It’s a physiology that is not working properly, much like the physiology that doesn’t properly produce insulin in a diabetic. Being anxious is healthy physiology; anxiety is not.

5. “It’s not worth getting this upset about.”
To a healthy individual, anxiety is definitely not worth it, but to someone suffering, it becomes a vicious cycle of positive affirmation. If anxiety and panic set in and eventually go away without incident, you’ve just conditioned your brain to believe that anxiety is a means to a positive end. In short, anxiety sufferers believe that it is worth getting upset about because, as you’ve said, it’s going to be okay if we do.

The statements above come off as judgmental and ignorant when said to students suffering from anxiety. Would you tell a diabetic going into shock, “It’s going to be okay, just make insulin and don’t lose consciousness. Everyone gets a sugar high, it’s not worth passing out over?” Of course you wouldn’t. People understand that diabetes is the body’s inability to produce the correct amount of insulin and isn’t something a diabetic person can control.

Related: A classroom teacher’s guide to reducing test anxiety (and testing!)

We need to understand the same thing about anxiety. It, too, is a physiological deficiency; the body is unable to produce the correct amount of neurotransmitters in the brain and is not something of which the person is in control.

Refraining from using the above statements will assist students in not falling victim to stigma and will start helping them make progress towards better understanding themselves and learning how to manage their anxiety.

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