As someone who suffers from anxiety, few phrases infuriate me more than 'try not to think about it'. I particularly loathe being told this when confiding in someone.
After I was diagnosed with anxiety in my early 20s I experienced differing responses whenever I opened up to my friends and family. For every person who would take the time to listen to and support me, I had experiences that left me feeling frustrated and invalidated.
A few years ago, after a painful dating experience, I confided in a friend over dinner. I was struggling to process the complex emotions I was going through. Our friendship had evolved over the years and I felt comfortable enough to open up to this friend. I assumed that doing so would give me some form of emotional relief. After recounting the series of events that led to the breakup, I was met with stone-cold silence. Then she shrugged and said nonchalantly: "Try not to think about it." I was taken aback. Obviously I was upset. It was clear that I was struggling 'not to think about it'.
At that point, shutting off my feelings felt impossible. Whenever I mentioned the situation, she would pause and say: "You need to stop thinking about it. It's not doing you any good."
From that day on, I bottled how I really felt around her. I worked hard not to mention any negativity in her company. Shutting out and repressing my negative thoughts seemed like the best way to deal with them because I didn't want my emotions to be a burden to the people around me.
Over time, this started to take a toll on me.
Dr Mahen Jhugroo is a chartered clinical psychologist with over 15 years of experience in treating patients suffering from depression, trauma, anxiety disorders and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). He explains that telling someone who is struggling to try not to think about it is unhealthy and can cause problems.
Try to avoid instantly giving advice and finding the solution to someone's problem.
Dr Mahen JHugroo
"This is essentially telling someone to brush whatever 'it' is under the carpet and avoid addressing the problem directly."
So it comes as no surprise that the side effect of my friend saying those words to me was that whenever I encountered any challenges in life, I felt like an emotional mess. I thought that I was always worried and burying my head in the past; my friend, in contrast, was forward-thinking and could shut off her feelings instantly.
Throughout our friendship I began to feel like a constant failure. Whenever I felt anxious, I shut it down in my head. But the anxiety didn't disappear; it simply manifested itself in other ways.
Every anxious thought I repressed felt like a physical strain on my body. I would feel a tightness in my chest, my palms would get sweaty and my head would spin. I would feel a general sense of impending doom. I never felt this way around my other friends and now I can see why: they encouraged me to voice how I was feeling and they listened to me. After this realisation, I could finally identify how invalidating my friend's comments were.
Dr Jhugroo says that shutting out your feelings is ultimately counterproductive. "Ignoring your emotions is like throwing a ball into the water. It will always come back up and float to the surface eventually.
"The issue goes unresolved and accumulates in your head, which is neither healthy nor sustainable in the long run.
"Many individuals who don't know how to support others often don't know how to manage their own emotions. So when they experience anxiety, they may avoid and distract themselves from the feelings," he explains.
Instead of becoming angry with my friend or blaming her for her approach, Dr Jhugroo suggests looking at the situation from a place of compassion.
"For some people, dealing with emotions is far too overwhelming and distressing so they choose not to," he explains. "This coping mechanism can be attributed to someone’s environment growing up, where showing emotions was seen as a sign of weakness, and this attitude can get transferred to other generations so they don't learn how to cope with emotions effectively."
Emotions are scary and powerful so it makes sense that some people may choose to run away from them instead of tackling them head-on.
So what can we do to better support those around us without minimising their feelings?
Dr Jhugroo offers an alternative approach. "Firstly, the important thing is to be fully present and actively listen to them. Listening is deeply therapeutic and can bring relief to the person, helping them feel understood. Let them know that they're not alone and that you are there for them if they need to talk."
We may not always know the right thing to say but it's not necessarily about having the answer. In fact, Dr Jhugroo warns: "Try to avoid instantly giving advice and finding the solution to someone's problem. Instead, it's always good to ask questions that make people reflect and explore the issue together. Just talking itself offers an emotional release."
Listening is deeply therapeutic and can bring relief to the person, helping them feel understood.
DR MAHEN JhUGROO
Before we respond to a friend's concerns with a general statement, we need to think deep and hard about what impact our words will have. Chances are, if we don’t accept and process our own emotions, we aren’t likely to be supportive of others.
Over the years, while navigating my anxiety, I’ve learned the importance of friendships that allow me to feel heard and seen and meet my emotional needs. I’ve also learned that some people are incapable of meeting our emotional needs and as an anxious person this is harmful to my mental wellbeing. My friend was not a bad person; she was simply incapable of providing emotional support and that’s okay. But to preserve my mental health, it's important to have people around me who can provide the support I need.
It can feel isolating to have anxiety as there is so much uncertainty and so many complex emotions in our heads. But it feels incredibly validating when a friend takes the time to listen actively and ask us more about how we feel. It provides a great sense of comfort but it also allows us to fully connect with them, which only deepens the relationship. True friendship is about being fully vulnerable and supported by each other, and those are the friendships you ought to keep.