When I was a whipper of a teenager, I was quite an optimistic soul. I used to really love a good inspirational quote. Hand-written messages used to adorn my walls encouraging me to ‘reach for the stars’. Quotes such as “Let your smile change the world, but don’t let the world change your smile” and “Some people dance in the rain, others just get wet.”
I used to see the world through such cheerful eyes. How annoying.
These days if I happen to pass someone running in active wear adorned with inspirational messaging (‘Live Hard’, ‘Reinvent Yourself’ or ‘Move with Purpose’) I am very close to whispering in their ear – "Or, you could just give up?" Perverse, I know.
But parts of my longing to find the perfect words for any given situation still exists. Scroll through my photo gallery on my phone and you will find a large collection of screen shots of Instagram and Pinterest quotes. The difference being that these days, the search for inspiration is something that can describe the more nuanced subtleties. Or with a bit more hopeful cynicism implied.
This could be a result of the somewhat unhelpful clichés and inspiring comments that really lovely and well-intentioned people can sprout when we experience a mental illness.
One of these is unhelpful things is telling a loved one experiencing anxiety to "keep calm" or "calm down". This is pretty much on par with suggesting to someone with hay fever to "stop sneezing". Or someone having an asthma attack to "breathe all this air". Or someone with the hiccups to "just stop that thing you're doing". You get it.
The debilitating problem with anxiety and panic disorders is that you simply can’t calm down. Finding the ability to relax - particularly on command - isn’t easy for most of us, and it’s certainly much more difficult when we are experiencing the paralysis of anxiety.
Anxiety and panic disorders can cause ceaseless feelings of fear and uncertainty. And no one chooses to feel these paralysing levels of anxiety. If we could control anxiety, we would have already. And no doubt, we have probably already done everything we could to try.
Often calming down is the final goal. Not an initial action step that can be implemented immediately. It’s what we all want to do when we’re panicking. It’s the shore in the distance, and it can feel miles away as we gasp for air in the undertow of emotion and struggle to stay afloat.
When I was experiencing significant anxiety symptoms, I would have given anything to stop them and just ‘keep calm’. At the time this may have been difficult to understand since it might have looked like I chose to panic, ruminate, clean, avoid, write excessive lists. But I didn’t. In my world at the time, doing these things made the anxiety only slightly less excruciating then not doing them.
In addition, telling someone to "calm down" has the potential to be incredibly invalidating when we might be experiencing anxiety as it can insinuate that we have decided to have an anxiety disorder.
Luckily you have chosen not to send your loved one a “keep calm” card! Hooray. As a result, hopefully they shouldn’t have any reasons to kick you in the balls because of your non-intentional insensitivity. Double Hooray.
So, instead of advising someone to “just calm down”, it may be more worthwhile to try asking the person what you can do to support them. It could be beneficial to ask the person this question when they are relaxed, rather than waiting until they are in a state of heightened anxiety.
And sometimes words, clichés and inspirational quotes are best left in teenage girls' bedrooms. Maybe the most powerful method here might be offering to do something with your loved one to help them alleviate their symptoms. Hold their hand. Help them breathe. Help them come back into the moment. Then, when they feel safe, still don’t tell them to calm down.
You can find our new 'Anti Keep Calm' card right here.