flexibeast.space - gemlog - 2021-01-13

“Calm down!”; or, unhelpful approaches to distress

One of the worst things you can say to me when i'm having a stress/anxiety/panic attack is “Calm down!” (or variations like “You need to calm down”, “I need you to calm down”, etc.). It actively makes things worse for me; it actively escalates the situation.

i'm not alone on this. i know a number of people who have mental health issues, are neurodivergent, or both, and i'm yet to meet anyone who says “Yeah, I find it really helpful to hear that” - on the contrary, it's usually very much the opposite.

When i'm in one of the above states, it's typically because i've run out of spoons[a] to cope with all the forks[b]: i've already been working as hard as i can to manage myself, but i just don't have the resources left to continue to do so. It's not that i'm not aware of the need to try to get a grip; the problem is that i no longer have the ability to maintain the grip i had up to that point. Using “Calm down!”-type phrases just makes things worse for me, as i desperately flail around internally to somehow find more resources that simply aren't there, due to feeling like i'm being scolded - implicitly, and sometimes explicitly - for “not really trying”. Imagine hanging from a cliff by your fingers for an extended period of time, then one's fingers finally giving out, and having someone tell you to “get a grip” as you're actively falling.

Yet the experiences of myself and a number of others suggest that's what a number of health professionals - or first responders more generally - seem to have been taught to do.

What works for me is to have someone indicate they ‘get’ my distress, and to make soothing noises. Like: “Okay. Okay. I hear you. Okay. Okay.” With no extra pressure being added on top of the immense pressure i'm already feeling, the distress diminishes as it's vented, instead of the venting being unable to keep pace with additional pressure being added. And again, discussions with others suggest i'm not the only one for whom this approach is best.

So unless you're someone who's more concerned about taking on the opinions of ‘experts’ than about listening to people's lived experiences of themselves, please consider the possibility that the “Calm down!” approach is not necessarily helpful for someone having a stress/anxiety/panic attack.

🏷 health,neurodiversity,psychology


Gemlog Home

[a] “The Spoon Theory”

[b] “Fork Theory”