Myth #1 Having an anxiety disorder means getting anxious about stuff.
There is a huge difference between normal, everyday anxiety and having an anxiety disorder. Everyone feels anxious or nervous from time to time. You might feel nervous about a project at work, before taking a test, or making a big decision in your life. That is part of life. Aren’t we supposed to have some sort of response to things that are happening in our life? That is not a disorder. An anxiety disorder does not go away and gets worse over time. It can also interfere with a person’s daily life in relationships, work life, and school performance.
Myth #2 If you have anxiety, then you should avoid stressful situations so you don’t make it worse.
This is a good news, bad new situation. The good news is that it works for the immediate situation you are facing. So, if you are nervous about driving on the highway and you avoid driving on the highway, well you never experience that discomfort of highway driving. The bad news is that you will miss out on a lot of things that you could be doing or places you could be going because you cannot get there. This could be things like going places with friends and family, potential job opportunities, and travel or going on vacation.
The really bad news is that over time this strategy tends to increase the anticipation of anxiety and it will cause you to avoid even more things. For example, you might think that “if the highways are dangerous, then some of the other roads are also dangerous, so I will avoid them as well.” Over time, the more you avoid something the more anxiety producing it will become. It tends to snowball into something that can interfere with many other parts of your life. Your world will become smaller and smaller until going to the grocery store can seem like an unbearable task.
Myth #3 Anxiety comes in only one form.
You might think that having anxiety means having excessive fears that are irrational. While that is partly true, there are several different types of anxiety disorders that are under the general umbrella of anxiety. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the five most common types of anxiety are Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Panic Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Social Phobia.
Generalized anxiety disorder occurs with persistent worry and anxious feelings that something bad is going to happen. People with this disorder worry about any number of things and have this pervasive sense that something terrible is going to happen. They often experience restlessness, fatigue, poor concentration, irritability and problems with sleep.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is when a person has persistent, uncontrollable thoughts and feelings (obsessions) and routines or behaviors (compulsions). Some of the more commons forms include excessive hand washing due to a fear of germs and repeatedly checking behaviors (making sure the doors are locked or stove is turned off).
Panic disorder is when a person experience an abrupt surge of intense fear. This fear results in sweating, shaking, shortness of breath, pounding/racing heart rate, and fear of dying or “going crazy.” After such an intense episode, many are often fearful of having another attack and will avoid anything that can bring on such an experience. Many people will go to the ER convinced they are having a heart attack only to find out it was a panic attack.
Post-traumatic stress disorder can develop in response to severe physical or emotional trauma that can occur during natural disaster, victim of crime, auto accident, or in combat (among others). Symptoms include flashbacks of the trauma, nightmares, and frightening thoughts that can impact a person’s life for months or years after the traumatic experience.
Social anxiety (also known as social phobia) is when a person is fearful of social situations in which they feel judged. These situations can include public speaking, social gatherings, dating, eating in public, using public restrooms, and disagreeing with others (especially at work). They feel very self-conscious in front of others and worry about not being liked or being rejected by others. Other symptoms include having a hard time making friends, avoiding social situations, worrying for days prior to a social event, and even cancelling meeting with friends or family.
Myth #4 Everybody experiences anxiety the same way.
Even within a specific type of anxiety disorder, symptoms can still be different from person to person. Let’s take social anxiety, for example. One person might have symptoms only when eating in front of other people while another person might have symptoms in most social situations. In the case of panic disorder, one person might have an intense fear of leaving their house while another person might have an intense fear of being alone.
Myth #5 You can always tell when someone has an anxiety disorder.
Nope. There are many different ways a person can experience anxiety. You might assume that you can spot an anxious person, but that is just not the case. People with anxiety don’t have it tattooed to their foreheads. Shy people, calm looking people, successful people, famous people, even the worried masses can all have an anxiety disorder.
Myth #6 Social Anxiety is the same thing as being introverted or shy.
On the surface, these things might appear to have something in common with not feeling comfortable or actively seeking out social situations, and that is where the similarities end. As noted above, social anxiety involves a persistent fear of the scrutiny by others and that they will do something humiliating to embarrass themselves. Shy people have a hard time talking to people they don’t know and may feel awkward around strangers. However, just because a person it shy does not mean that they don’t want to be around people. Introverts might value their time alone but that does not mean that they don’t enjoy the company of others. They just don’t get energized from being with others in the same way that an extroverted person might.
Myth #7 You always need a reason to be anxious.
The definition of anxiety is that these worries and fears are irrational and excessive. Meaning that there will be some people who will be able to identify certain things that make them feel anxious. However, it is very common for a person to experience anxiety for no reason at all. I see many people who have panic attacks in their sleep or when they first wake up. It can be very confusing when there is no easily identifiable trigger to their panic.
Myth #8 Medication is the only way to treat anxiety.
While medication can suppress the physical symptoms of anxiety, it does not “cure” anxiety. Medication has its role and can be an important part in the treatment of anxiety. But, it’s not magic. Mediation cannot help a person to develop skills to improve their communication skills or develop confidence in making friendships. Other forms of therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has been demonstrated by research to be able to change a person’s brain chemistry. CBT has also been shown to effectively help a person develop skills to master their anxiety.
Myth #9 Anxiety is all in your head.
Sure, technically speaking, anxiety is a disorder that is stimulated from your brain and brain chemistry. However, a person with anxiety also experiences chest pain, trouble breathing, dizziness, muscle tension, headaches, diarrhea, and insomnia. These are all common symptoms of anxiety.
Myth #10 If you have a healthy lifestyle, your anxiety will go away.
Proper diet, exercise, no caffeine are all good things for your overall health and can help ease some of the symptoms of anxiety. But to think that anxiety is a result of an unhealthy lifestyle is not to recognize that anxiety is a real disorder. An anxiety disorder is no different from any other medical disorder and the same amount of care and attention goes into the treatment.
Myth #11 Anxiety problems stem from issues in your childhood.
Some kids grow up in an environment that is very stressful and never develop an anxiety disorder. Some kids can have a very positive childhood and still develop an anxiety disorder. Even though environment can be a piece of the puzzle, it should not be assumed that a person who struggles with anxiety had a bad childhood. It simply is not that simple.
Myth #12 Anxiety disorders are not that common.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of American, “Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year. Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment.”
Myth #13 You should always carry a paper bag in case you hyperventilate.
Although you might see this on TV as a way to handle anxiety, in reality is does nothing. Doing this might make you feel a little safer and that can have some value to it. But it also maintains the anticipation of having and needing a bag. Some people get anxious about being anxious. It can be more impactful to learn that you are OK and can handle this because in reality, you can.
Myth #14 People with anxiety are mentally weak and just can’t handle stuff as well as others.
To me, this is the same as saying that a person with diabetes (or any other medical condition) should be able to heal it on their own without any treatment. Sounds a little ridiculous because, well, it is. And, it makes a moral judgment about someone who has a disorder and needs treatment. I think that we are better than this. Don’t you?
I hope that helps clear up some of the confusion and myths around anxiety. But, if you are wondering if you struggle with anxiety? Click here to see 5 signs you might be struggling with anxiety.
If you or a loved one struggles with anxiety, there is help available. Please call Midwestern Psychological Consultants to find out more information or to schedule an appointment. We are here to help.