By Eunice Kim
In the United States, 40 million Americans aged 18 or older are affected by anxiety disorders, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).
Despite the very real statistics illustrating a pervading national issue, people with anxiety disorders often hear platitudes such as “be cheerful” or “exercise it out,” which both minimizes and invalidates their real very experiences. Sometimes, such advice, though well-meaning, causes more harm than good.
These advice-givers are usually well-intentioned, but not knowledgeable about the experiences or science behind anxiety disorders.
Telling a socially anxious person, for instance, to just reach beyond his or her comfort zone and expecting those words to be a proper push is often superficial and ignorant. It’s akin to telling someone with a cold to stop feeling sick.
According to the ADAA, social anxiety affects 15 million adults or 6.8% of the U.S. population. If telling someone to go on and persevere were a proper method, those statistics would not be nearly so high. If this were the case, positive words would overwhelm cognitive behavioral therapy and proper medicine.
Living with a mental illness is not a choice. If it were, people would leap to turn off the mental switch before it affected their lives. Thus, solutions aren’t as easily come by either.
I go through a personal, quiet struggle of my own in the most mundane-sounding places such as church and school classrooms. Whether others realize it or not, it can be a battle just to keep my composure. For instance, when I am a part of Socratic Seminars or even in traditional class discussions, I have to profusely drink water to calm down my racing heart. If I am called on to answer a question, I pray that my face will not be struck by an onset of random flushing. The last thing I need is for everyone to think I was anything but collected, which would just fuel more anxiety.
Even if I was dealing with a torrent of internal distress, looking placid and composed is always a priority. That adds to the stress, however. It is not hard to feel scrutiny, particularly in a negative light, due to the already existing amount of insecurity or anxiety I feel.
It is often made worse when someone tells me to calm down or focus on the positive. That just makes me feel as if I am weird or different because I cannot.
Because anxiety swims around with irrational thoughts, there is often no canning the fear people with anxiety disorders feel.
Anxiety disorders act indiscriminately and pain differs depending on the people afflicted with the disorder. Regardless, all feelings are valid and deserving of proper attention.
The purpose of this is not to discourage people from attempting to encourage someone else with words. However, it is important to take into account that there is so much weight beyond every word and each one has the power to possibly invalidate how someone feels.
Thus, focus should be placed on letting the person struggling know that his/her presence is recognized. Phrases like “You are not alone” and “I am seeing you” convey understanding without attempting to minimize the experience. Even just listening to someone’s pain speaks mountains.
“No matter how well intentioned you are, don’t offer solutions unless they ask you to, and be very aware your solutions might not be the best for them,” Therapist and psychologist Perpetua Neo said, according to Business Insider. “You feel like you’re counseling someone, but you’re not. The most powerful and loving thing you can do is just to listen to someone’s pain.”