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“Please don’t tell me to calm down!”
If I had a pound for every time I wanted to say that, I’d be much wealthier than I am now!
Anxiety sucks, doesn’t it? I reckon everyone has felt at least some level of anxiety at some point and even those who don’t actually have an anxiety disorder probably know enough to agree that anxiety sucks.
My least favourite part of anxiety (not that I have a “most favourite” part!) is the anxiety attacks that come out of nowhere and hit me so hard, I feel like I might die. Even though my rational mind knows that’s not going to happen, the feeling is convincing enough to make me think it might. I’m beyond grateful that I’ve got my anxiety under control to the point where those attacks are pretty rare for me right now. Touch wood.
I know it must be hard for my family and friends when I get like that. I know it must be near impossible to know what to say when nothing seems to be the “right thing”. I’ll let you in on a secret – sometimes, there is no “right thing” to say. Sometimes, I just need to work through it on my own.
(If you’d like some ideas about how to help your anxious friend, check out this post)
While there isn’t really a “right thing”, there are plenty of “wrong things” and I know they can be hard to avoid, because they’re different for each person and, annoyingly, each attack. What’s OK to say one time, might not work the next. If you feel like you need to say something and you’re not sure where to start, “I’m here if you want to talk it out” or “how can I help?” are always lovely to hear. Even if I can’t talk it out and there’s nothing you can do to help, just knowing I’m not alone is comforting. And sometimes there is something you can do, but I don’t know how to ask for it until you specifically offer to help. I know that sounds ridiculous, but reaching out can be really hard, even if the person is sitting right in front of you. I guarantee that reaching out is easier for the person *not* having the anxiety attack.
But, please, don’t tell me to calm down. I know that this is often just something people say when they’re trying to help. “It’s ok, don’t worry, try to calm down”. It sounds pretty harmless, doesn’t it? But it isn’t. Not really. Not when I’m in the middle of an anxiety attack. For me, it’s the worst of the “wrong things” to say.
The thing is, if I’ve got to the point where I’m panicking, I’ve already tried to calm down. This isn’t my first rodeo and I’m not a fool – calming down is the first thing I try to do when I start feeling anxious. I have techniques I learned specifically to help me calm down when I feel myself heading for an attack. Sometimes, they even work. If I’m in the middle of an attack already, it’s too late for that. It’s like telling someone who’s drowning to “just breathe” – if they’re already drowning, trying to breathe just leads to more drowning.
When I’m panicking, telling me to calm down or to not worry, just makes me worry and panic more. It makes it impossible to calm down. I start to panic about the fact that I’m panicking. I start to think that everyone is looking at me, judging me, thinking that I’m being dramatic for the fun of it or to get attention (anyone who knows me knows that I do not like to be the centre of attention, so this one is especially ridiculous).
And, of course, when that happens, people try even harder to calm me down. They tell me “it’s OK! It’s OK”, when it’s obviously not OK, because I feel like I can’t breathe and I can practically hear them thinking that I’m crazy – judging me, while pretending to be worried, knowing that they’ll be laughing behind my back later…
Except none of that is really true, is it? I don’t have friends who would do that. Rational Becca knows that the people who try to help me really are trying to help me. That they care about me and just want me to be OK. But when I’m in the middle of an anxiety attack, Rational Becca isn’t in control anymore. She’s taking a nap in the back seat, while Anxious Becca takes the wheel. So I convince myself that everyone is laughing at me and judging me and it all starts with those “harmless” little words… “calm down”.
Those little words make me feel like my anxiety isn’t valid. Like I’m overreacting, when I could just stop and get on with my day, if I’d just “calm down”. Which I obviously couldn’t… or I would. Because panicking in public is no one’s idea of fun and I’d do anything to avoid letting people see me like that.
So, I love that you want to help, but please… don’t tell me to calm down.