Anxiety can turn life into a nightmare, and this can be made worse by myths about anxiety that stop or delay people from receiving a crucial support.
These myths or misconceptions about anxiety are not based on evidence and the fact they remain so common reveals just how misunderstood anxiety is in our society.
In our work as therapists, we meet many people with anxiety who have refrained from seeking treatment for many years because they believed in these common misconceptions. This is why I believe we need articles like this, for all of us to share, so we can understand what anxiety is, what it is like to live with it, and what myths might be stopping us from taking action.
How do I know if the person I care for suffers from anxiety?
The common symptoms of anxiety are closely related to fight and flight safety responses that we have evolved with, which traditionally have been useful in keeping us safe. However, when anxiety becomes overwhelming, we experience increased struggles in working through everyday situations. This is why actions and activities that other people take for granted, the person with anxiety may find enormously challenging.
When left without support, anxiety can affect our ability to:
- Interact with other people
- Participate in community activities
- Form and maintain friendships and relationships
- Attend to daily tasks such as shopping
- Go to public places such as restaurants
- Engage in employment and many other aspects of everyday life
While some people can identify the triggers and thoughts associated with anxiety, many others remain unaware of what causes their experiences of anxiety.
The anxiety can affect every aspect of our life and is not a condition to ignore or put up with. The good news is, however, that with the right level of support, anxiety disorders can be effectively managed as long as we don’t buy into common myths in this area.
So, let’s now turn to the common myths that can get in the way of person you care about seeking help.
Myths about anxiety 1: Anxiety is not ‘normal’
Everybody experiences anxiety, as it is a natural physiological response to what mind interprets as dangerous situation.
During this response, hormones like adrenalin and cortisol are released, slowing digestion, speeding the breathing and heart rate, directing blood flow to major muscle groups, tensing the muscles and providing the body with energy and strength so it can fight or run away from danger.
In the case of real danger, this natural, self-protective response, and the energy generated by it, would be fully used, by either fighting or running away.
However, the problem with this fight or flight mechanism, which has protected us from danger for centuries, is that life is now faster than it was hundreds or thousands of years ago and this pace leads to much more stress and tension than our slowly evolving brains are used to. A prolonged overexposure to high stress often results in a lowering of stress threshold. When this happens, our brain becomes over vigilant and on full alert, constantly scanning situations for potential danger and activating messages of danger, sometimes in situations that are not even dangerous.
In the result our brain activates a fight or flight response in situations where such bursts of energy are not appropriate, like during a stressful day at the office or in a shop.
Common anxiety symptoms resulting from unreleased flight / flight responses, include:
- Fear, panic and uneasiness
- Shortness of breath
- Racing heart
- Tense muscles
- Tingling, cold, sweaty hands or feet
- Inability to think clearly
It is at this point that anxiety disorders are commonly diagnosed, when oversensitivity and the misinterpretation of what is dangerous, begins to affect our everyday life and functioning.
Myths about anxiety 2: Anxiety disorders are rare
This is the easiest myth to debunk because the national Australian Bureau of Statistics data is clear. Information from 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing and 2017 National Health Survey confirms that anxiety disorders are among the most common types of mental illness in Australia. They are experienced not only by people with a confirmed diagnosis of mental illness but also by people who do not hold any formal diagnosis. This is because anxiety is often not reported. Anxiety disorders are also commonly experienced by people with chronic health conditions and disabilities, regardless of the type of their disability.
Myths about anxiety 3: You can just snap out of anxiety
Our brains have not evolved fast enough to interpret the stresses of modern life with more subtlety and nuance. This means at times they interpret situations in black and white and trigger the fight or flight response when it’s not really needed.
What’s more, many of the perceived dangers our brains are reacting to, are situations we cannot really fight it or run away from. For example, we might be afraid of being in group situations, crowds, or certain places, going out after dark, or even afraid of not being liked or followed on social media, and there is no way to “fight” this. We can’t. Nor can we run away.
As a result, our body has a build-up of energy from the fight or flight mechanism, but this energy cannot be used. Instead, it builds up in the body, causing all the physical symptoms of anxiety.
The experience of anxiety is very real and disabling. Not only are people are overwhelmed by their physical responses but with the blood being drained away from the brain to fuel the limps for fight or flight, our cognitions are also affected. We are likely to feel very confused and experience difficulties in focusing our minds.
This is definitely not the right time to try applying our deep abdominal breathing exercises if we have not practised them beforehand and did not yet master this strategy. Likewise, if you have never learnt and practised other skills and strategies to address anxiety, how can you use them to “snap out” of an anxious state when your cognitive function is so deeply affected? You can’t. And that makes this myth so frustrating for people with anxiety and for H-L Therapy staff. We work in this area and know that it is very difficult for people to ‘snap out of anxiety” or even effectively manage it, if they haven’t yet mastered any support strategies. This is true regardless of how hard they try.
Myths about anxiety 4: You can stop it by avoiding fear-provoking situations
This is a very tempting strategy, commonly used by people with anxiety. However, it just reinforces the fear, resulting in more problems.
For example, if today you leave the shops at the first sign of anxiety, next week you might not even be able to cross the door of the shopping centre. Taken to the extreme, in a few months this behaviour can become generalised to other social situations, and within a year it could manifest in being too afraid to even leave your house because the anxiety has become generalised to all social situations.
Myths about anxiety 5: It’s no big deal, you just need to live with it
Anxiety disorders are very real and very disabling to people who experience them but there are better ways of coping than just putting up with them.
With the recent developments in neurobiology and psychological sciences, we are now more equipped than ever with powerful strategies that can help regulate our over vigilant flight or fight safety mechanisms.
As a result, we can now support people with affective disorders such as anxiety disorders and depressive illness.
Some examples of the tools we use for addressing anxiety include:
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy strategies
- Cognitive Behaviour Therapy techniques
- Artistic exploration exercises
- Guided visualisation and relaxation skills
These strategies can assist the person you care for to develop new pathways for thoughts and behaviour, suspend the automatic anxiety responses and replace them with more helpful sets of behaviours. So please let people with anxiety know that support is available and that the techniques listed in this article, can help to restore their emotional wellbeing and confidence.
And please help us to dispel the myths about anxiety to stop preventing people with anxiety from getting relevant support.