How to Respond When Someone Says “Just Relax”
Have you ever been stressed out or dealt with anxious feelings and been told to “calm down,” “chill out,” or “just relax”? Although others may be well-intentioned with this advice, it isn’t just unhelpful—it can be harmful.
Anxious feelings don’t really have an on-off switch, says Paul Donahue, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist and director of Child Development Associates in Scarsdale, New York. What’s more? “Simply imploring people to ‘just relax’ invalidates their experience,” he says.
This type of advice can make someone feel weak for not being able to stop their anxious thoughts, says Supatra Tovar, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist based in Pasadena, California.
The truth is that it’s normal to feel anxious from time to time about any number of things, such as your health, finances, or relationships. And being told to calm down or relax doesn’t allow for discussion of more practical strategies a person can use to ease their worries, Donahue says.
Why Validation Is So Important
Validation means acknowledging and accepting a person’s experience, thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as that person’s truth—even if you don’t understand or agree.
Compassion from others in the form of validation can go a long way in encouraging self-compassion as well, some research suggests, which in turn may promote better well‑being. And researchers at Pennsylvania State University believe that validation can help improve communication and strengthen relationships, as people listen more when they feel you’re trying to understand their own perspective. All of this may help decrease the stress of a situation.
Just by listening, allowing you to verbalize your feelings, and validating your experience, a person can help you relax, Tovar says.
4 Ways to Stand Up for Yourself
How you react if you’re told to “just relax” can vary depending on who gave that unhelpful advice, Tovar says. These tips can help you navigate an uncomfortable moment and respond in a way that meets your needs.
1. Educate Friends and Family
If the person is a close friend or family member whom you care about, talking things out may be the way to go. “You may wish to directly tell them, in a nonconfrontational way, that their advice minimizes your experience and that you are looking for someone to listen to you so you can feel heard,” Tovar says.
Donahue suggests giving loved ones examples of more helpful, thoughtful responses they can use to help in the future, such as:
- Would you like to talk about what you're upset/worried/anxious about?
- Can we try to problem-solve or look at the likelihood that your worries will come true?
- Would it help to do some deep-breathing exercises or other calming activities together?
- Can we go for a walk or perhaps find something else to focus on in this moment to distract you from your anxious thoughts?
- Is there something you need or that I can do to help?
“This provides a helpful road map for your friend or family member if they are confused about how to help you,” Tovar adds.
2. Normalize the Experience
We all experience anxious feelings to some degree, Donahue says. Tap into that to help encourage the other person to step into your shoes for a moment. “Reminding people that we all have anxious thoughts and feelings, and have to work to manage them, can be empowering, and hopefully can lead to a more supportive approach from the listener,” he says.
3. Walk Away from Strangers with Bad Advice
At other times, de-escalating your anxious feelings may involve acknowledging the unsupportive advice and then stepping away, Tovar notes. “Engaging with a stranger may leave you open to possible further attacks and more unnecessary anxiety,” she says.
If you want, later, you can also take a moment to enlighten the other person. “After using techniques to calm yourself, you may wish to come back and explain how unhelpful comments exacerbate the situation, and that saying ‘just relax’ only makes things worse,” Donahue says.
4. Think About Whom You’ll Turn to Next Time
“While it may be triggering or even infuriating to have your feelings dismissed or minimized, take a moment to reflect on the person who has given you the advice,” Tovar says. Many people who have had their own feelings dismissed in the past end up being dismissive of others’ feelings, as well, she says.
“Taking time to objectively examine the person giving the advice can help you see that their words should not be taken as a personal attack,” Tovar continues. “When this happens, you can reduce your further feelings of anxiety or hurt by going to someone whom you can rely on to be helpful.” Knowing whom you can turn to for support when you need it can help you feel less offended by people who are more likely to say something unhelpful or even harmful.
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