Welcome back, everybody. This is a last-minute episode. I usually am really on schedule with my plan for the podcast and what I want to do, but I have recently got back from vacation and I have been summoned to jury duty. For my own self-care, the idea of going to this master plan that I created for all of the other episodes that I do a lot of planning and a lot of prep and really think it through today, I was like, “I deeply need this episode to land on my own heart.” This is as much for me as it is for you, and it is a community effort, which also was very helpful for me.
As you may know, I’m a huge proponent of self-compassion, which isn’t just having bubble baths and lighting a candle. It’s actually stopping and asking, “What do you need in this moment?” And I really dropped in and I was like, “I need this to be really simple, really easy, and I need this to be also something that will land.” Let’s do it.
Today, we’re talking about the 14 things you should say to a loved one with anxiety. I asked everyone on Instagram to weigh in on what they need to hear, and the response was so beautiful, it actually brought me to tears.
I am going to share with you the 14 things that you should say to a loved one with anxiety, and I’m also going to talk about, it’s not just what we say. I was thinking about this the other day. When we’re anxious, the advice we get can make us feel very soothed and validated, or it can feel really condescending. Saying “stop worrying” can be really condescending. It can make us enraged. But if someone so gently says, “Listen, don’t worry, I got you.” You know what I mean? The tone makes a huge difference.
For those of you who are family members or loved ones who are listening to this, to really get some nuggets on what they can do to support their loved one, remember that the tone and the intent are really 80% of the work. That is so, so important. Here we go. Let’s go through them.
The first thing you should say to a loved one with anxiety is, “I am here for you.” The beauty of this is it’s not saying, “How can I make your discomfort go away?” It’s not saying, “What should we do to fix this and make you stop talking about it and stop having pain about it?” It’s just saying, “I’m here, I’m staying in my lane and I’m going to be there to support you.” It’s beautiful.
The second thing you could say to a loved one with anxiety is, and this is actually my all-time favorite, this is probably the thing I say the most to my loved ones when they’re anxious or going through a difficult time, “How can I support you?” It’s not saying, “What can I do?” It’s not saying, again, “How can I fix you?” or “Let’s get rid of it.” It’s just saying, “What is it that you need? Because the truth is, I don’t know what you need and I’m not going to pretend I do because what may have worked for you last week mightn’t work this week.” That’s really important to remember. How can I support you?
The third thing you could say to a loved one with anxiety is, “You are not bad for experiencing this.” So often when we are going through a hard time, we’re having strong emotions. We then have secondary shame and blame and guilt for having it. We feel guilty, we feel weak, we feel silly, we feel selfish, we feel juvenile for struggling—often based on what we were told in childhood or in our early days about having emotions. We can really start to feel bad for having it. Or for you folks with OCD or intrusive thoughts, you might feel bad because of the content of your obsessions.
Now let’s pause here for a second and be very clear. We also have to recognize that we don’t want to be providing reassurance for our loved ones with OCD and intrusive thoughts because, while giving them reassurance might make them feel better for the short term and might make you feel like you’re really a great support person, it probably is reinforcing and feeding the disorder and making it worse.
So in no way here am I telling you to tell your loved ones like, “You’re not bad. You’re not going to do the thing that you think you’re going to do,” or “That fear is not going to come true.” We don’t want to go down that road because that’s going to become compulsive and high in accommodation. Those two things can really, really make your OCD and intrusive thoughts much, much, much worse. But we can validate them that having a single emotion like anxiety, shame, anger, sadness does not make them a bad person. So, so important.
The fourth thing you should say to a loved one with anxiety is, “Things will get better,” and another thing that the folks on Instagram said is, “This will not last forever.” This was something that was said many, many times. I pulled together the main common themes here.
But what I loved about this is they were bringing in the temporary nature of anxiety, which is a mindfulness concept, which is, this is a temporary experience that this anxiety will not last forever. Again, pay attention to the tone here. Telling them “This won’t last long” or “This won’t last forever” in a way that devalues their experience or disqualifies their experience, or invalidates their experience isn’t what we’re saying here. What they’re saying is, they’re really leading them towards a skill of recognizing that yes, this is hard, we’re not denying it. Yes, this is hard, but things will get better or that this won’t last forever.
The thing I love about “Things will get better” is, so often when we have anxiety, and we recently did an episode about this—when you have invasive anxiety all the time, you can start to feel depressed about the future. You can start to feel helpless and hopeless about the future. Offering to them “This will get better with steps and together we’ll do this and we’ll support you and we’ll take baby steps,” that can really help reduce that depressive piece of what they’re experiencing.
The fifth thing you should say to a loved one with anxiety is, “You have gotten through this before.” Now, that reminds them of their strength and courage. Even if they’ve never done this scary thing before, chances are, they’ve done other scary things before or other really difficult things in their life. Often I’ll say to patients when they’re new to treatment, “Tell me about a time where you did something you actually didn’t think you could do.” It’s usually things like, “I ran a marathon,” or “I rode a bike up this really steep hill and I couldn’t do it forever. And then one weekend I built up and I could,” or “I never thought I would pass this one exam and I’d failed it multiple times and I finally did.” It helps us to really see that you are a courageous, resilient person, that you’ve gotten through hard things before.
Again, we’re not saying it in a sense of urgency like, “Get up and do the hard things because you’ve done them before.” We are really dropping into their experience. We’re really honoring their experience. We’re not rushing them too much.
I have learned as a parent of a kid who hates needles, this is the biggest lesson for me because I’m an exposure therapist. I’m like, “Let’s go, let’s face our fear.” I’ve learned to trust my child. When we go in to get vaccinations or immunizations, my child says, “Mama, I’m going to do it, but you have to let me do this at my pace.” I was like, “Wow, you’re quite the little wise one.” It was so profound to me that I was pushing them too fast, going, “Let’s just get it over with. Once you’re done, you’ll feel so much better.” They really needed to slow it down and be like, “I’m going to do it. It’s just going to be at my own pace.” I digress.
The sixth thing you should say to a loved one with anxiety, and you don’t have to say all of these by the way, but number six is, “I am proud of how hard you are trying.” I loved this because it, number one, validates that they’re going through a hard thing. It also encourages and recognizes that they are trying their best.
Often we make the mistake of saying, “You could be doing a little better.” The truth is, yeah, you will be doing better in the future, but you’re doing the best you can right now with what you have, so do really say, “I’m proud of how hard you are trying.”
One thing I’ve also learned, and I learned this from another clinician once, is this clinician taught me. She says, “I never tell my patients how proud I am of them.” She says, “I always say, you must be so proud of how hard you are trying.” She said that because that gives them ownership of being proud. It gives them permission to be proud. I have learned in many clinical settings with patients to say that. Not all the time, sometimes I just straight up say, “I’m so proud of you.” I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But you might even want to play around with this nuanced change in this sentence of, “I’m so proud of how hard you are trying and you must be so proud of how hard you are trying.” So powerful the use of words here.
The seventh thing you need to say to a loved one who has anxiety is, “Let’s listen to stories of other people who have gotten through this.” The person who wrote this in, I loved it because they actually gave some context of them saying, “In a moment where I don’t think I can do the scary thing, sometimes hearing other stories of people who have done this work is exactly what I need to remind myself that I can do this hard thing.” This is how they did it, and I have the same skills that they do. I’m the same human that they are. They’re no better or worse than me.
If you go back, there’s tons of stories and OCD stories that you can look at on Your Anxiety Toolkit podcast or OCD stories or other podcasts, or even IOCDF live streams of other people’s stories that can be inspiring to you.
The eighth thing you should say to a loved one with anxiety is, I loved this one, “I will do the dishes tonight.” I loved this one. They actually put a smiley face emoji after it because really what they’re saying is, “You need a break and I’m going to be the break you need.” It’s not to say, again, that we’re going to accommodate you and we’re going to do all your jobs and chores for you. All they’re saying is, “I can see anxiety’s taking a lot of space for you. As you work through that—not to do compulsions, but as you work through that and navigate that using your mindfulness and your ERP and your willingness and your act and all of the skills you have—as you do that, I’m going to take a little bit of the slack and I’m going to do the dishes tonight.” I just loved this. I would never have thought to include that. I thought that was really, really cute.
The ninth thing you should say to a loved one with anxiety is, “You are allowed to take this time and this space.” I thought that was really a beautiful way. Quite a few people said something similar like, “You’re allowed to struggle at this time. It’s okay that you’re having this discomfort. I’m going to give you some space to just feel your feelings. Be uncomfortable if that’s what you’re doing. Bring on the loving kindness and the compassion, and I’m actually going to give you space to do that. You’re allowed to take this time. You’re allowed to take up this space with these emotions.”
As somebody who, myself, struggles with that, I feel like I should tie my emotions up and put them in a pretty bow. I really felt this one really landed on me. It was exactly what I needed to hear as well. Thank you, guys.
The tenth thing you should say to a loved one with anxiety is, “You do not need to solve everything right now. You can pace yourself through this.” There’s two amazing things I love about this, which is number one, reminding us that we can be uncertain, that we can be patient, that we can let this one sort of lay it down, sit down. We don’t have to tend to it right now, we can just let it be there. We’re going to go about our time. Absolutely. And that you can pace yourself in that.
Often I get asked questions like, “I just want to get it all done right now. I just want to get all my exposures done and I want to face all my fears and I want to have all the emotions and get them over and done with.” You can pace yourself through this. I think that’s so important to remember.
The eleventh thing that you should say to a loved one with anxiety is—this is actually not something you’d say, it’s actually something you would ask. They’d say, “I need them to ask me, what’s important to you right now.” I think this is beautiful because instead of supporting them, you’re really just directing them towards their north star of their values. “If you’re anxious, let me just be a prompt for you of, what’s important to you right now.” So cool. It’s really helping them, especially you guys know when we’re anxious, we can’t think straight. It’s so hard to concentrate, it’s all blurry and things are confusing. Sometimes being given a prompt to help direct us back to those values is so, so important.
The twelfth thing that you should say to a loved one with anxiety is, “I believe you.” Really what we’re saying here is, “I believe that this is really hard for you. You’re not trying to attention seek. I believe that you’re struggling.” This was a big one, especially for those people who have a chronic illness. As someone with a chronic illness, so many people kept saying, “Are you sure it’s not in your head? Are you sure it’s not anxiety? Maybe you’re seeking attention.” For people to say, “I believe you, I believe what you’re experiencing. I believe that this is really hard for you,” I think that that is so powerful and probably the deepest level of seeing someone authentically and vulnerably.
All right, we’re getting close to the end here guys. You have held in strong.
The thirteenth thing you should say to a loved one with anxiety is, “You are stronger than you think and you have got this.” So good. Again, similar to what we’ve talked about in the past, but it’s reminding them of their strengths, reminding them of their courage, reminding them of their resilience.
Sometimes when we’re anxious, we doubt ourselves, we doubt our ability to do the hard thing. They’re saying, “You’ve got this. Let’s go. Come on, you’ve got this.” But again, not in a way that’s demeaning or condescending, or invalidating. It’s a cheerleading voice.
The fourteenth thing you should say to a loved one with anxiety, but I do have a bonus one of course, is,” I know you can resist these compulsions.” This is for the folks who have OCD and who do struggle with doing these compulsions. Or if you have an eating disorder, it might be, “I know you can resist restriction or binging or purging,” or whatever the behavior is. Maybe if you have an addiction, “I know you can resist these urges.” Same with hair pulling and skin picking. It’s really reinforcing to them that, “I know you can do this. I know you can resist this urge or compulsion, whatever it may be.”
Again, it gives us a north star to remind ourselves what are we actually here to do. Because when we’re anxious, our default is like, “How can I get away from this as fast as possible?” Sometimes we do need a direction change of like, “No, the goal is to reduce these safety behaviors.”
These are so beautiful. I’m going to add mine in at the end and you guys know what I’m going to say. We almost need a drum roll, but we don’t need a drum roll because I’m going to say that the 15th thing that I always say to any loved one, including myself with anxiety, is, “It’s a beautiful day to do hard things. It’s a beautiful day to do freaking hard things. It’s a beautiful day to do the hardest thing.” I say that because it reminds me to look at the beauty of it, to look at the reward of it, and to remind myself that yes, we can do hard things.
My friends, thank you for allowing this to be a nice, soft landing for me today. I know I have to rearrange all the schedule and my podcast editor and my executive assistant is going to have to help me with all of the mix-up and mess around. But I’m grateful for the opportunity just to slow down with you this week.
Take a deep breath.
Drop into what do I need. I hope you’re doing that for yourself. I will see you next week back on schedule and I cannot wait to talk with you there.
Have a wonderful day everybody, and talk to you soon.