Take a moment to imagine yourself in the lowest mental state you could possibly be. Removing yourself from your bedsheets to move your body feels about as excruciating as climbing Mount Everest barefoot. Or maybe out of nowhere your heart starts thumping so fast that your breath hitches in your throat and your lungs can’t get air.
Now picture your well-meaning friend trying to offer you some advice during this time, and saying something along the lines of “Why don’t you just work out?” or “Just take a few deep breaths and calm down.”
That four-letter word may seem harmless, but it actually can do a lot of damage. “Just” implies that whatever task or behavior ― say, exercising or relaxing ― you’re suggesting is easy or uncomplicated. In reality, it’s anything but, according to experts.
“For many people with anxiety and depressive disorders, everyday tasks that seem 'simple' to others can be very challenging.”
– Elizabeth Duval, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan
“For many people with anxiety and depressive disorders, everyday tasks that seem ‘simple’ to others can be very challenging,” said Elizabeth Duval, an anxiety expert and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan.
“Anxiety and depression tend to be characterized by distressing internal experiences that are not always observable to others,” she added. “People with anxiety and depression can experience overwhelming and intense thoughts that consume their attention and make it difficult to focus on the task at hand.”
While honing in on one tiny word may seem like nitpicking, the fact is that the phrases you use carry more weight than you might realize. This is especially true when it comes to mental health, where flippant conversations or casual terms can easily contribute to stigma.
“Language matters when we talk to other people about anything. It conveys how we think and feel about ideas and others,” said Victor Schwartz, chief medical officer of The Jed Foundation, a mental health organization. “We would not say you should ‘just’ get over a broken leg or a surgery.”
All of this isn’t to say that you should never offer advice; in fact, your support is vital. There are just some better ways to phrase it. Below are some expert-backed suggestions on how to frame your words instead:
“I care about you.”
Expressing your concern is always a great initial step.
“It always helps to let someone know that you care about them and that they are important to you,” said Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president of research at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “Let them know that you are not running away and that you are there for them.”
“I know this is probably difficult, but what about … ”
It doesn’t have to be this exact phrasing, but try saying something that acknowledges how tough it can be to do certain tasks when you’re living with anxiety or depression.
“You need to start out slowly in addressing the things that are challenging and move along at a pace that is manageable,” Schwartz said. So, instead of asking, “Why don’t you just try exercising?” try suggesting that they go on a walk with you for a few minutes. Just make sure you’re involved.
“Offer to engage in positive and enjoyable activities with them ― invite them to go for a hike, go to the gym or watch a movie with you,” Duval said.
Whatever you do, try not to offer unsolicited guidance ― at least not without checking with your loved one first about what’s useful to them, said Amy Alexander, a psychiatrist at Stanford Health Care.
“If you feel like providing advice, it is helpful to ask first. [Try saying,] ‘I have some thoughts and suggestions, but I don’t know if that’s helpful for you now,’” Alexander said. “Some people may not want advice, and may want you to keep listening, and that is the way that you can be most helpful to them.”
“What can I do to help?”
Asking what you can do to help someone is always a great way to show a loved one you support them, Schwartz said.
But keep in mind that doesn’t just mean offering platitudes. Experts say it’s important to take action to help someone, especially if you think they’re in crisis. There’s a huge difference between saying “I’m here if you need me” in passing and actually showing up for them and asking “What can I do right now that will help you?”
“I really love ______ about you.”
Get specific. Tell your best friend that you love her dry sense of humor. Tell your brother you appreciate how he shows up for your parents.
“Remind them of what makes you feel connected with them, what you love about them,” Harkavy-Friedman said. “They may not understand what makes you want to be with them or care about them, depending on what they are experiencing. Stay present, patient and persistent.”
“There’s nothing wrong with getting treatment.”
This is worth repeating: There is absolutely nothing wrong or bad about getting help from a mental health professional. And it’s important to make that clear to someone, both as a way to alert them of their options but also to erase some of the stigma that comes with seeking support.
“If someone with a mental health condition asks for help, offering to assist them with identifying or accessing treatment or other resources could be helpful,” Duval said. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America, The American Psychological Association and the National Alliance on Mental Illness are all great places to start, she added.
Above all, it’s important to keep in mind how tough mental health conditions are when you’re interacting with a loved one who’s experiencing one. When you have depression, getting out of bed and working out seems insurmountable. When you’re in the throes of anxiety, calming your mind and slowing heart rate on the spot seems impossible. You either feel like you’re going to die or you feel absolutely nothing at all.
Both are debilitating to the point where “just” doing a task isn’t difficult ― it’s often completely out of reach.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.