Understanding anxiety is something that educators, parents, doctors, therapists, students, sufferers, and non-sufferers are still working on. Just like anything else we attempt to understand, we will never get there if we don’t, first, ask questions.
I have explored five things I’ve heard and/or experienced being said to students suffering from anxiety that miss the mark in being supportive. Although parents, guardians, counselors, classmates, staff, and friends have great intentions, their comments are rarely productive. The statements they make are often judgmental and ignorant. The negative impact of saying the wrong thing to a student with anxiety might seem minimal—it’s supposed to be the thought that counts—but the long-term effects can be severe.
I challenged educators to consider the same comments being said to someone with diabetes. The statements in that context reeked of absurdity. The challenge becomes for people to view a mental illness from the same lens as that of a physical illness. Diabetes is easy to understand; if you don’t have insulin, you will not survive. No one diagnosed with diabetes is going to deny themselves the opportunity to be treated. Why, then, are individuals with mental illnesses expected to will themselves to happiness, i.e., healthy levels of neurotransmitters?
Students with anxiety don’t understand the physiology of their own brains, and therapists tend to work to reduce symptoms instead of explaining the underlying causes. When students become symptomatic, they become fearful, panicky. What’s happening to me? Why do I feel this way? Not knowing the answers to these questions in the moment is a feeling of powerlessness unlike any other. And if those with anxiety don’t understand it, how can we expect those who don’t suffer to comprehend it?