5 Ways NOT to Help a Friend with Anxiety Attacks, part 1: It’s illogical

5 Ways Not to Help a Friend with Anxiety Attacks

If ESPN broadcasted anxiety stats instead of sports scores, this would be the standing in my house:


I’m hitting the point in this pregnancy (27 weeks) where sleep is greatly desired, but I’m waking up more than I’d like. Last night I only got five hours of sleep before simultaneous heartburn, hunger, and the siren call of the bathroom got to me. After breakfast, I laid back down and tried to take a nap. Instead of passing out, however, I realized my breath was coming faster and faster, and my heart rate began to climb. Ever aware of the fact that what happens to me affects my baby, I had my husband take my pulse. I clocked in at 124 heartbeats per minute.

It only took a moment for me to really figure out what was going on. An anxiety attack was calling, and I’d left the door wide open. After a cautionary trip to the hospital last week to check on Jelly Bean, I’d decided to relax a bit until everything returned to normal. And while it was a good decision (in my opinion), it also meant I didn’t get nearly as much exercise as usual. (And exercise is my Numero Uno natural anti-anxiety “medication.”) Of course, there was also the song I was going to sing in some dear friends’ wedding this afternoon, and the fact that we’re moving in about two weeks, and I’m nowhere near packed or ready.

In short, there were lots of reasons for the anxiety to creep in.

My husband had a decision to make when I told him the reason for my crazy heart rate. He had to choose his words and actions so that they helped me overcome my anxiety, rather than making them worse. And thankfully, he didn’t choose any of these.

Over the next 5 Mondays, we’re going to discuss 5 ways NOT to help someone having an anxiety attack. If you can follow these 5 rules, you may just find yourself a new best friend. Here is rule No. 1:

Tell them the anxiety is illogical

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “Well, just don’t think about it!” That’s like telling your friend, “Don’t think about the purple striped elephant!”

Believe me when I say that I know much of my anxiety is illogical. Most of my fears were illogical today. (1)There was no reason to be worried about the wedding. It was a song I know well, and I practiced for the wedding last night with the musicians; it went perfectly. (2) We have friends coming to help us move, and in the end, it will be much less stressful to have more space when the baby arrives. Plus, we’re moving like two minutes up the road. So yes, I’m aware that I don’t need to feel the anxiety. But it’s still there whether I want it to be or not.


According to Scientific American’s article, “What happens in the brain when we experience a panic attack?”, panic can set in when our minds receive the signal of a possible threat through our sympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system prepares itself and gets ready for action.

But of course, not everything we perceive as threatening really is. When something shows itself not to be dangerous, the parasympathetic nervous system should step in and shut things down. Lecturer Paul Li from the University of California, Berkeley explains, “If the parasympathetic nervous system is somehow unable to do its job, a person will remain fired up and may experience the heightened arousal characteristic of a panic attack.”

Simply lecturing your friend about how he’s overreacting isn’t going to shut that sympathetic nervous system down. His body will need time to do that on its own. Telling your friend that his anxiety is illogical can be insulting and hurtful instead, adding fuel to the fire. While you probably never meant it to sound that way, telling him, “Just don’t think about it!” can sound like, “Well, you obviously missed the easiest solution in the book, Genius!” Commanding him to ignore his anxiety is like telling him to ignore a cold virus. It doesn’t matter how much he wantsto; what matters is that it’s here, and he now must handle the anxiety that’s affecting him here and now.

Note: If you like that adorable clay elephant in the photo, my husband made it himself! Here’s his Etsy store if you’re interested in seeing more! Sorry, proud wifey moment there. You may continue.


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