If you don't understand the difference between stress and anxiety, odds are you've never been diagnosed with any kind of anxiety disorder. Parents are infamous for telling tales of stress and anxiety, but for those of us who have been clinically diagnosed with some sort of anxiety disorder, the parental struggle that most people talk about seems more like a walk through the park than a day in the circus. There's a big difference between the two, and understanding that difference will help you avoid saying things you should never say to a parent dealing with anxiety that, you know, inevitably make it all worse.
I was diagnosed with anxiety shortly after the birth of my second child. I assumed I was dealing with postpartum depression again, or that I was just muddling through a difficult time in my life, but it turned out to be a much more serious situation. The journey that was me working towards accepting that I did, in fact, have anxiety was a frustrating one, but coming to terms with it was important not just for my own well-being, but my family's, too.
Like most parents, I just want what's best for my boys. Most days, I feel more than capable of being their mother, but it hasn't always been so easy for me. My underlying anxiety made the hard days that much harder, and it got so bad some days that I questioned my ability to be a mother at all. Thankfully, I sought treatment, and through a lot of trial and error, I've been able to manage my anxiety and depression in a way that doesn't completely numb my ability to be present. It's an ongoing process, and it might always be that way, but I'm willing to do the work for the sake of my family. In other words, if I have to wake up every day and fight, I will. That fight, however, is made exponentially harder when I'm also fighting the stigma and the misunderstanding of anxiety disorders.
If I had a dime for every time someone said one of the following things to me, I could probably retire. Yes, really. So if you've got a friend with anxiety, who also happens to be fighting the added stress of parenthood, do them a favor and just don't says any of the following things to them.
"You Need To Just Chill Out"
Don't ever tell a person with anxiety what they need to do. Seriously, don't. It doesn't do them any good to have a person who probably has no idea what it's like to suffer from anxiety tell you what to do. People, including some of my own family members, have told me that I "need to just chill out" when I was on the brink of an anxiety attack. As I'm sure you could imagine, their magic advice didn't exactly do the trick. Weird.
"It's Really Not That Big Of A Deal"
What is and is not a big deal to someone varies greatly, especially to a person suffering from anxiety. I guess I get it though. Things that, at one point in my life, never would have caught my attention keep my mind racing at night and fill me with worry, now. Things that were never a big deal to me before, are now, and having someone remind me that I'm not currently capable of handling certain aspects of life quite the way I once was only makes me feel worse about my inability to do so.
"You're Freaking Out Over Nothing"
Again, you might think that it's nothing, but the odds are that the person "freaking out" does think whatever "it" is or whatever is going on is a very big deal. Don't devalue their feelings and don't try to police them and don't diminish someone's situation just because it doesn't mirror your own.
"You Don't Want Your Child To Get Your Issues"
Well, no, I don't want my kids to inherit my "issues," but that's exactly why I fight so hard to get out of bed on the days when I feel like I can't. I'm trying. I really am. Every day I have to will myself through certain situations, and while I handle myself and my anxiety fine most days, some days I don't. On those days, I feel like an epic failure and I do worry about how it might effect my children if I don't regain control, so I don't need the reminder that my anxiety might effect my children. I'm doing my best to make sure that it doesn't.
"You Need To Just Focus On What's Really Important, Like Your Kids"
Oh, I hadn't thought of that before until this very second. Literally, this is the very first time that the notion of my children's well-being being of any importance has crossed my mind. Gosh, thanks so much. (Insert eye roll here).
This is also a really dangerous sentiment, as it implies that a mother and her mental health don't matter. They do. Like, they do just as much as anyone else's.
"What's Wrong With You?"
Well, the internet tells me that anxiety is a nervous disorder characterized by a state of excessive uneasiness and apprehension, typically with compulsive behavior or panic attacks. I guess that's what's "wrong" with me.
Also, don't ask a person with anxiety (or really anything else going on with them physically, mentally, or emotionally) "what's wrong with them." Suffering from anxiety doesn't make me any less human. It doesn't make me blind to the fact that people think "I'm just freaking out" or that I'm too sensitive or too stressed or too uptight. Having feelings that I sometimes struggle to control doesn't mean that there's something wrong with me, though.
"Are You In A Bad Mood?"
Never in the history of asking someone whether or not they're in a bad mood has that ever ended in them not being in a bad mood eventually.
Normally, I'm not in a bad mood until you asked me if I'm in a bad mood 27 times. Then I just end up sitting there wondering and stressing over what it is about my face or physical appearance that screams "bad mood." Thanks.
"I Know How You Feel. I'm Stressed All The Time, Too."
Most parents are stressed. That's just part of the gig. It doesn't matter how much money someone makes or how good their health is or if every star in their universe has aligned to give them the good life with good kids and good jobs and good relationships; at some point, having children is going to feel stressful.
I get that, and I've become quite familiar with it over the last three years of my life, but when you tell a person who has legitimate anxiety that you know how they feel because you're stressed, you're really not acknowledging how very debilitating anxiety can be. You being stressed about money or schedules isn't the same as someone with anxiety feeling so overwhelmed by just taking a shower that they just sit frozen in their bed. Sorry, it's just not.
"I Don't Get Why You're So Stressed"
Honestly, neither do I. Anxiety isn't something that I can control all of the time, and if you understood how hard it was to control it any of the time, you wouldn't question its cause. Instead, you would congratulate me on not losing my shit nearly as often as I feel like I'm going to.
This is literally one of the worst things you could say to someone with anxiety. Don't you think that if we were able to simply calm down that we would? I don't enjoy being in a constant state of stress or angst, and if I was able to just calm down, trust me, I would.
Instead of questioning why a person with anxiety is the way he or she is, or why they're that way in the first place, try asking them how you can help. Try asking them how they feel instead of trying to come up with your own conclusions about their feelings. If you really care about and want to help them, don't judge them, and definitely don't demean their very real feelings with these very counter productive remarks.