Adventures in Anxiety: What should I probably not ask about anxiety?

For better or worse we’re living in a politically-correct world. And, believe it or not, many people aren’t at all happy with that. A recent article in The Atlantic stated that many Americans would rather not be woke — there is a persistent exhaustion with political correctness outside of the activist left.

Here’s the thing, though — words matter. Words can wound and hurt, or they can uplift. And if you, like me, are dealing with mental illness, words might carry even more weight than they did before. It’s hard to feel like you are different and not accepted by others, especially if you’re still coming to terms with the illness yourself.

It’s great to be curious about mental illness. You might be reading this blog because you want to better support someone like me. And most people have been considerate and provide great support. This post might dissuade you from asking questions for fear they are “wrong.” I don’t think many genuine questions from kind, curious-minded people are wrong. I mean, sometimes they come out awkwardly. I get it. I’m #awkwardaf in general.

Something that a mentor told me many years ago when I started working with teams was to better marshal my curiosity when I was asking questions of leaders. Was I curious for them or was I curious for me instead? I think a version of that applies to this too. Does your curiosity come out of a desire to support and understand, or to just know more about this weird mental illness thing?

With that in mind, here are three questions that you might not want to ask someone with anxiety… or with other mental illnesses… or just of other humans in general.

Common question: “Have you ever tried not worrying?”

Me: Oh gosh. Now that you’ve mentioned it, I’ll just stop worrying. #cured

BAHAHAHAHAHAHA yeah right.

Let’s stop and remind ourselves that worrying is not the same as clinical anxiety. Worry, in normal amounts, is a positive motivator for change; those who worry generally score higher on the personality trait of conscientiousness. That’s a good thing.

Another way to look at it — Anxiety is to shame the way that guilt is to worry. Guilt drives positive behavior change; when we do something bad, we adjust our behavior in the future. Anxiety is rooted much deeper, like shame. When we are anxious we are ashamed, afraid that we are bad. There is something within us that feels broken beyond repair.

When my frontal lobe is driving, I can rely on my logic. I can look at an individual problems and determine how much concern it merits. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has strengthened these behaviors. But some days see me front-lobe free and the worrying just comes. That’s because my brain isn’t working as intended. Thanks, anxiety!

Instead, you can say:

  • “It seems like this is causing you a lot of worry/stress.” (neutral observation)

Common question: “My sister’s friend’s hairdresser’s cousin tried consuming green mushrooms underwater and her anxiety went away entirely.” Or, the general corollary: “Have you ever tried…”

I’m probably more educated on the different treatments for my disorder than you will ever be — not only is that just my mode of operation in general, but I spent the first six months consuming everything I could read, watch or listen to about Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). And I’ve used this data to select my treatment plan, along with my doctors.

On top of it, determining if/when to take medication (and what types of medication) or to attend therapy (or what types of therapy) can be a difficult subject. I’ve had people insinuate that taking medication is a failure or not a natural way to cure it — maybe if I tried a little harder to not worry it’d be okay?

In my case, I’m actually very open about what I do when people ask, so I’ll talk about it freely. It’s a much better conversation if we leave judgement out of it! (Look for a post about meds in the future). I’m willing to be even more open with people who also have GAD or other anxiety disorders, and in those cases we have similar lived experiences and I find I’m more open to getting advice on treatment. But if you don’t an anxiety disorder too, skip the advice, thanks.

Instead, you can say:

  • “How is treatment/management of your anxiety going?” (open-ended question)

Common question: “But you don’t look sick.” or “Are you really sick?”

How is sick supposed to look, exactly? Anxiety is not the flu. It’s chronic and it’s unlikely to ever go away. So even if I feel awful I still put on a nice outfit and grab some lip gloss and try to make it the best day possible, given the circumstances.

Whether or not it’s intended, when people say “Are you really sick?” what I actually hear is:

  • “Do you really need an accommodation? You don’t look like it.”

Just remember — if we start defining what sick looks like, we’ve lost trust in what people say is true for them.

Lastly, people frame psychiatric disorders in different ways. Some people don’t believe they are sick and reject that label; same for the label of “disabilities.” Others believe both to be true. Some use the frame of “mental illness” and some of “mental health.” None are right or wrong, but be aware that opinions differ.

Instead, you can say:

  • “How are you?” (open-ended question)

In conclusion: If you take nothing else away from this post, try this: Instead of offering a diagnosis or advice, try a neutral statement about what you’re noticing, a general check-in, or an offer of help. And, if you goof, apologize and try something else next time.

xo, Sarah

P.S. Next week I’m back with a fundamental question — am I worried or clinically anxious? See you next Wednesday!

NW native blogging about life’s struggles and triumphs. Balancing career, family, hobbies, and health. Fierce advocate for mental health. And chocolate lover.