Social anxiety is an intense, pervasive fear of being watched and judged by others. It can manifest in social anxiety, getting in the way of work, socializing, or school. Or it can appear as performance anxiety, causing physical symptoms of anxiety when playing sports, dancing, playing a musical instrument, or performing on stage.

In talking with members of our community about their experiences with social anxiety disorder, we heard a lot about what people should not say to someone suffering from that condition. Following is a list of ten things that are not helpful to say and should be avoided.

  1. What’s the big deal?
    People who don’t suffer from social anxiety disorder often don’t understand how situations they view as minor can cause crippling anxiety in those that do experience social anxiety. During those “good times” and get togethers that many enjoy, those with social anxiety tend to be on high alert, paying attention to and getting overwhelmed by the smallest details. Asking “what’s the big deal” doesn’t help and can actually make the person feel worse.
  1. Just suck it up and get over it.
    Using this kind of language shows a deep misunderstanding of social anxiety disorder. It suggests that sufferers can control their fears. This kind of “tough love” makes people feel attacked, misunderstood, and isolated. Instead of helping, it makes people more anxious and can cause them to feel ashamed, as if they are failing in some way.
  1. You just need to calm down.
    First, using the term “just” makes it seem as if what you’re suggesting is easy to do. Social anxiety can be paralyzing, and it is difficult, sometimes impossible to control. And telling someone to calm down almost always has the opposite effect. It invalidates their feelings, suggesting that they are hysterical and irrational. And to be honest, almost no one can relax on command.
  1. You just need to be positive.
    This statement is pretty patronizing. It diminishes the circumstances that may have contributed to the person suffering from social anxiety. Anxiety can stem from painful or traumatic experiences in a person’s past, making them feel unsafe in social situations. They aren’t trying to be negative; they’re trying to protect themselves.
  1. It’s not that bad.
    Yes, things can always be worse. But saying this negates the depth and breadth of the emotions that someone is feeling. Just because it could be worse, doesn’t mean that it isn’t bad, that it isn’t real, that you should take comfort in the fact that you could be feeling much worse. Going from feeling terrible to feeling really terrible doesn’t take away the fact that you are feeling terrible. In fact, this is kind of stating the obvious. Despite the intention to make someone feel better, it may make them feel worse, because they feel guilty for feeling like their situation is pretty bad. It won’t make them feel grateful for what they have; it’ll just make them feel guiltier, which leads to more anxiety.
  1. You’re just imagining it.
    This is simply unhelpful. It suggests that social anxiety isn’t a real condition, that it’s all in a person’s head. It makes someone feel like they’re even more out of control, because if they were “in control” they “wouldn’t be imagining it.” This statement also suggests judgment on the part of the speaker. Just because the thoughts and fears of social anxiety originate in the brain doesn’t make them any less real or difficult. And this anxiety often has a very real physical component to it.
  1. It’ll be okay.
    Despite the good intentions behind this statement, like the desire to make someone feel better, it honestly doesn’t help. Anxiety steals the ability to be rational—it tells the sufferer that nothing will be ok, that everything will go wrong. And you saying that it’ll be okay will do nothing to convince them otherwise. If you want to help, tell them it’s okay for them to have their own feelings; they will figure out how to deal with their anxieties as they know how.
  1. We all feel this way sometimes.
    Yes, everyone experiences anxiety and fear in different situations. But comparing a slight case of nerves to social anxiety disorder is like comparing an orange to a citrus grove. This comment trivializes the intense, paralyzing anxiety that comes with social anxiety disorder. If you truly understood the anxiety felt by sufferers of social anxiety, you wouldn’t say this.
  1. You just need a drink.
    This could be one of the worst things you could say to someone suffering from social anxiety disorder. Yes, drinking might slightly lessen the intensity of anxiety in the moment. But it’s only temporary, and it can turn into addiction if used long term. Don’t encourage this as a coping technique.
  1. Here we go again…
    And lastly, there is almost nothing you can say that will make someone suffering from social anxiety disorder never want to speak to you again. This comment suggests that the sufferer is being melodramatic, annoying, and irritating, all deliberately. This obviously makes their anxiety that much worse, and only reinforces all the emotions they’re already feeling. Please don’t say this kind of thing to a person suffering from social anxiety disorder.

Remember, social anxiety isn’t a choice. It is real. And there is help.

Social anxiety is a treatable mental health condition. Please reach out to The Center for Mental Health to get help at any time. One of our caring professional counselors can help you cope with anxiety, depression or feelings of being overwhelmed. For appointments, call 970-252-3200. For more information, visit www.centermh.org.

Written by Jennifer Wheeler, MSW, LCSW – OP/JBBS Therapist for The Center for Mental Health – Telluride