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What to say to someone experiencing anxiety or a panic attack

"Don't worry" falls short when someone experiences anxiety. There are better things to say when a love one needs support.
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Saying “Don’t worry” might seem helpful, but in reality, it falls short as advice for someone experiencing serious anxiety.Oleg Elkov / Getty Images stock
/ Source: TODAY

Everyone experiences anxiety differently, but if you've ever been around someone who is having a panic attack, suggesting "Try not to worry" is not the best idea.

“You can say things that make anxiety worse,” Dr. Ken Duckworth, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), told TODAY. “People don’t like to be dismissed."

Anxiety is unique because everyone experiences it in normal amounts. It helps people avoid danger and be successful, for example. But anxiety can become worrisome.

“Anxiety has always been interesting because it is the only psychiatric illness that is also experienced by people without a psychiatric illness,” Dr. Robert Hudak, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh, told TODAY.

Saying “Don’t worry” might seem helpful, but in reality, it falls short as advice for someone experiencing serious anxiety. While there are different types of anxiety disorders and one script won’t work for everyone, the experts agree a few supportive words can help.

1. 'Tell me about a time when things went wrong.'

When people experience anxiety, they often worry about what may happen in the future. That’s why Ken Yeager, director of the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center Stress Trauma and Resilience Program, recommends that people engage in constructive discussions.

“Help them carry out the concern to the future,” he told TODAY. “People could say, ‘Give me an example of when things went wrong.’”

After hearing what went wrong, people should ask the person what they could “have done differently to change the outcome.”

“You’re working this through,” he said. “You hear what’s going on and you help the person to process.”

2. Provide encouragement.

After talking about when things went wrong, Yeager said it is important to consider what the person does right.

“Build their strength,” he said. “You can say, 'What are the times you have done this and it worked out for you? What did you do then and would it work for you now?'”

3. Offer support in a helpful way.

When people receive treatment for anxiety disorders, their clinicians often give them “homework assignments” or coping mechanisms to help them manage their anxiety. It could be something like deep breathing, for example.

“Some of what you offer is help focusing. ‘I am here for you. What did the therapist say to do?’” Hudak said. “Give support and redirection.”

4. Share your experiences.

If people have dealt with anxiety before, they might feel comfortable sharing their experience and coping mechanisms with a loved one. It’s still important not to be dismissive when offering help.

“Sharing one’s experience brings people closer as a general rule,” Duckworth said. “You could say, ‘Here’s what I learned from my own experience’ so it is about you and not (the other person). Instead of saying, ‘You should not feel that way’ or 'You should ignore your feelings.’”

5. 'What do you need?'

If you frequently experience panic attacks, it may be beneficial to tell loved ones what would help, prior to an attack occurring.

“It would require a good working knowledge of the medical problem,” Duckworth said. People can offer suggestions to loved ones like:

“I want you to be quiet, supportive.”

“Pick me up from work.”

“Please don’t judge me.”

“Be kind to me. Be warm to me.”

“Please don’t dismiss this.”

Remember, saying "calm down" or "don't worry" isn't very helpful. If you don't know what to say, listen, and just try to be there to support your loved one.