‘It’s All In Your Head’ And Other Things Not to Say

One of the more difficult things about having a mental illness, at least for me, is dealing with people who don’t have a mental illness. It’s hard to explain what having a mental illness is like because there are so many people who just have no idea what it’s like. A few weeks ago, Anju and Lachrista, hosts of the podcast Dames With Demons, spent an episode of the show talking about the things you should and shouldn’t say to an anxious person and there are plenty of things to not say to a person with depression as well. I know that for some people, there are some good intentions behind some of these phrases but overall, they come off condescending and shaming.

It’s all in your head.

When people say this, they don’t seem to understand what a mental illness is because that’s the entire point. Mental illness does exist in my head because it’s an imbalance of hormones and chemicals in my brain. Sure, there are some physical parts of anxiety and depression but the roots of these problems exist primarily in my head. I can’t will them away and no amount of meditation and mindfulness will suddenly cure me of these things.

By saying ‘it’s all in your head’, you also invalidate the very real existence of mental illness. This phrase implies that these illnesses are somehow made up and not real. But they are very real and require treatment and support.

Other people have it worse.

So one of the big reasons I spent years not acknowledging the fact that I was depressed and anxious was that I was reminded continuously in different little ways that others have it worse. Telling someone that others have it worse not only invalidates their very real emotions and experiences but it uses those ‘other people’ as a prop to shame someone. No one wins in these situations. Plus, there are many on the internet who have pointed out the fact that saying others have it worse when someone’s miserable in anyway is like shaming someone for being happy because other people have it better. It’s a false competition that no one will ever win.

This phrase is used in a variety of situations but it’s almost never helpful. While I was writing this, I stumbled upon a phrase that’s been attributed to Anne Frank from her diary when she was in hiding with her family during World War 2. I haven’t had the chance to verify that it is from her but the sentiment seems applicable here:

What’s the good of thinking of misery when you’re already miserable?

Just calm down (related: don’t think about it or just get over it).

So with anxiety and depression, I can’t just ‘calm down/not think about it/get over it’. My brain literally won’t let me sometimes and I become obsessive over somethings. And like I’ve said before, anxiety and depression are things I just can’t will away when they’re inconvenient or overwhelming. There’s really no amount of sheer willpower that will help me.

Let me know how I can help.

This one seems weird to include but let me explain: because of my anxiety and depression, reaching out to someone is incredibly difficult, even with my closest friends. I literally won’t reach out when I need help the most because my depression and anxiety have convinced me that I would be bothering/burdening people with my problems/existence. During my better moments, I know that the people in my life love me but reaching out is still so painful.

By saying ‘let me know how I can help’, you place all the burden onto the person struggling. It may feel like a great thing to do but constantly offering concrete ways to help is a much better way to go. In an episode of ‘Mental Illness Happy Hour’, Nora McInerny and Paul Gilmartin talk about this sentiment/phrase and Nora mentions that it’s not a particularly great one. She goes onto say that the people who just consistently helped out in little ways without asking after her first husband died, like a friend who went on a Costco run and dropped off lots of food at her door and just left, was incredibly helpful.

What to say (and how to help)

These phrases and sentiments only add to mental illness stigma and at least for me, they’ve made it harder to talk about my mental health in any capacity (even the good days!). Instead of saying these things (and the many more I’m sure I missed), there are a few different things you can say that would help! One would be to validate what they’re feeling and acknowledge the fact that they are anxious/depressed. So many times, we stigmatize negative emotions but acknowledging the fact that we do feel these things can help.

I feel like there have been very few times in my life when this happened. But there was one when I was a senior in college. I went out drinking with some friends and saw someone I wasn’t particularly fond of. I mentioned that to my friends but later on and as we were leaving, I got anxious that the other person heard me when I was saying what I didn’t like about him (because my anxiety is irrational like that). I voiced that anxiety and rather than thinking I was crazy, one of my friends casually just said that it was too loud in the bar for him to have heard me and I was okay. It was such a simple thing and he was so chill and not judgmental about it while also dismissing my anxiety in a rational way that I felt so much better. Sometimes (at least for me), it’s nice to have another person to act as that nonjudgmental common sense filter when I can’t.

Another thing would be to tell people that you love them and keep them in your life (assuming you want them in your life), even if they don’t always go to parties or out to drinks. Sometimes, telling someone you love them doesn’t always mean just saying the words. It can be helping them clean or making a meal and eating it with them. It can be sending them silly jokes/memes or things that reminded you of them. The friends that have kept in contact with me over the years even though I tend to regularly fall off the map for an indeterminate amount of time are some of the best people in my life.

I do want to say that these things are rooted in my own experiences and people will need different things because no one has a universal experience with mental health. Each person is going to find different things helpful. But being kind, compassionate, and understanding with friends and loved ones about mental health/illness can go such a long way.