Language is important. We don’t have to go far to see that this is true…for example:
Some of the ways we realize this truth can be gut-wrenchingly hilarious (like these messages) and others give us a terrible, sick-to-your-stomach feeling. The times when you think to yourself, “You really should have just kept your mouth shut.”
One of the things that makes me extremely uncomfortable is when we use language to talk about anxiety that might be hurtful to those that struggle with it. These experiences have driven me to write this blog post: The Do’s and Don’ts of Talking About Anxiety. Now, the point of this post is not to shame people that use language included in my list of “don’ts.” I am guilty of this myself, and I need to continue to work at it.
But rather, this post is supposed to provide us with an extra dose of awareness when it comes to the language we are using to talk about anxiety.
Let’s start with the Don’ts:
(1) Don’t equate “stress” and “anxiety.”
Stress and anxiety are not the same thing. Stress is a short-term experience, while anxiety is tied to mental illness, which is typically more of a long-term, chronic experience. Yes, some people label anxiety as “Chronic Stress.” But what I have found is that if we do not specifically reserve the language of “anxiety” to name and describe mental illness, it becomes a lot harder to understand and empathize with those that face this struggle. “Stress” can be minimized and overlooked, while “anxiety” is a more serious term that requires attention. We can respond to “stress” with a pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality, but we cannot respond to “anxiety” in the same way. “Anxiety” is a more loaded term that carries a lot of baggage–its ties to mental illness. Let’s reserve this word for our conversations about mental illness so that we can more deeply hear those around us who live with this experience.
(2) Don’t talk about anxiety like it can be cured overnight.
People that struggle with anxiety cannot just “try to feel better,” or “try to not worry so much.” Of course, this is different for each person–some may struggle with anxiety for a few months and others may struggle for years. But just like a broken bone, mental illness requires time, care and attention, and maybe even tools such as counseling, medication and therapy of various kinds. There is no quick-cure for anxiety and we need to stop talking as if it can suddenly disappear with a hot shower and a good night’s rest.
(3) Don’t read off Bible verses that say, “Do not worry about…” or blurt out Christian cliches.
This is a hard one for me to talk about because I very much understand that we should be seeking the Lord in all of our joys and sorrows. But what I’m trying to get at here is that I can struggle with anxiety and still be living an obedient life in Christ. Anxiety and a strong Christian faith are not mutually exclusive. Many times, the Bible verses and cliches we list off to those who are struggling with mental illness (or physical illness, loss, doubt, grief, etc.) end up portraying that if we are still struggling with anxiety, then we aren’t really following the Lord. That if we really were following the Lord with all our heart, our anxiety would disappear. I fundamentally disagree. Scripture does not tell us that following the Lord would be easy. Nor does the Lord ever promise to take away all the struggles of this life. What He does promise is that as we struggle, He will take us under the shadow of His wings and comfort us. Comforting does not mean that God always takes the pain and suffering away. He could do this, but oftentimes, our pain and suffering foster faithfulness in our own hearts that an easy life could not. I cannot tell you why there is suffering in this world. This is a question too lofty for me to answer, and I must be content in the mystery. But I can tell you that God does not waste suffering. He is Emmanuel, God with us.
In the grand scheme of things, I don’t know why I struggle with anxiety. But I can tell you that I have seen the Lord’s faithfulness in the most beautiful of ways throughout this struggle. Anxiety is not good. But the Lord is Good and has loved me relentlessly on the easy days and really hard days.
So far, I have briefly laid out the don’ts of talking about anxiety. It is time to move into the do’s.
(1) Do ask clarifying questions.
If a close friend or family member tells you that they are feeling anxious, what are the first associations you make with this word? Nervous. Fearful. Scared. Apprehensive. Hesitant. We make assumptions about what “anxious” could mean, but our assumptions may be wrong. When someone says they are anxious, there are often underlying feelings and emotions. Asking, “What are you feeling underneath the anxiety,” or, “What feelings are contributing to the anxiety,” can be helpful questions for you to ask. It can be helpful for you because you can better understand their experience, and it can be helpful for the person struggling because it enables them to name the feelings behind the anxiety. My counselor, Matthew, gave me a copy of this feeling wheel below as a great tool to aid in communicating and naming my feelings:
Once I started using this wheel to describe my feelings behind the anxiety, it became much easier for those around me (aka my husband) to understand and care for me.
(2) Do name that you cannot understand the totality of someone’s inner experience.
This is very important. If you have never struggled with anxiety, the inner experiences of someone who does can be radically different from your own. This idea remains true for anyone you speak to that has experienced something that you have not (i.e. cancer diagnosis, the suicide of a friend, death of a child, etc.). These are all life-changing experiences, and sometimes to say, “I understand,” can be unhelpful in caring for the hurt person. What is better is to say, “I cannot completely understand your experience, but I love you and I’m here for you in any way that you want me to be.” There is great humility in this response, and it leaves the hurt person feeling cared for and loved.
(3) Do pray fervently for and with your brothers and sisters who are struggling.
It is unbelievably important to pray for and with those that are struggling with anxiety. The Good, Good Father hears our cries, laments and griefs. He does not turn a deaf ear to those that earnestly call to Him in pain. Remaining connected to the Lord is of the utmost importance when we go through the dark and heavy seasons. If you run out of words, turn to the Psalms of lament. Did you know that a majority of the psalms are laments? The writers of Scripture were not foreign to pain and suffering, and we were given their words as tools to use to cry out to God.
He hears you. He sustains you. He loves you.