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Unmasking Myths About Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety can be confusing, but treating it is essential.

Key points

  • Anxiety is often misunderstood, though it is the leading mental health challenge in the U.S.
  • Anxiety is frequently minimized by those who do not experience it.
  • Left untreated, anxiety can have severe mental health, physical, and relational outcomes.

An anxiety disorder is described as a disproportionate response to a circumstance or problem. The hallmarks of an anxiety disorder are prolonged, excessive, and obsessive thoughts leading to physical symptoms. When an anxiety disorder is present, telling yourself that you can get over it on your own, or that you just need to adjust your perspective, does not adequately address the seriousness of the problem.

Here are some of the most common misconceptions about anxiety disorders.

“Anxiety disorders aren’t a serious condition.” The danger with this myth is that it can result in individuals and families letting an anxiety disorder go untreated. The truth is that people with untreated anxiety disorders are at a higher risk of depression, substance abuse, illness, and even suicide. So anxiety disorders are a big deal and need to be addressed. The good news is that anxiety disorders are among the most treatable of all mental issues.

“I can get over this on my own.” People who hold on to this myth are at greater risk of mismanaging their anxiety, self-medicating to cope, and living with prolonged anxiety that might have been successfully managed with the help of professionals.

There are, indeed, things you can do on your own to reduce anxiety, and connecting with professionals and others to learn what these techniques include is a good way to begin to appropriate them.

“Anxiety disorders are a sign of character defect or weakness.” This misconception could not be further from the truth. The reality is that anxiety disorders can be caused by relationships, environmental stress, brain chemistry, and ingested substances like alcohol, drugs, and even caffeine. Genetics is a factor, as well. Anxiety can run in families, and having a close relative who struggles with anxiety increases your risk of struggling with it, too.

Exposure to traumatic events as a child or adult can contribute to the development of an anxiety disorder. Even health issues such as heart disease, diabetes, asthma, hyperthyroidism, and chronic pain can play a role.

Understanding the root causes of anxiety disorders can help eliminate shame linked to the misguided belief that anxiety is a sign of personal failure or weakness. And just as anxiety is not a sign of weakness, neither is obtaining help.

People Images Yuri A/Shutterstock
Young woman experiencing anxiety
People Images Yuri A/Shutterstock

“To cope with my anxiety, I need to avoid all stressful situations.” This approach not only doesn’t work, it can actually increase feelings of anxiety. Avoiding stress in life is an unrealistic expectation that simply cannot be met. Even if you tried to shield yourself from the outside world, staying sequestered in your home all the time, you’ll still experience stress. You might worry about the people you know beyond your front door, or that your health is deteriorating. The fact is, the world we live in is stressful, and we simply cannot avoid it. But we can manage our stress in a healthy, productive way.

Another point about this myth is that envisioning yourself as too fragile to deal with any stress is a debilitating and demoralizing way to live. Avoidance may be a common way to deal with anxiety, but it keeps you stuck in the same miserable place. You don’t want to be stuck, and you don’t need to be.

Pursuing impossible solutions isn’t the answer, especially when there are so many treatments and solutions available to you that work and can provide genuine relief for the anxious feelings that are impacting your life on a daily basis.

“This is my lot in life, and I’ll always be this way.” This myth is a self-fulfilling prophecy for many. If you believe anxiety is your burden to bear in life and always will be, you won’t take the necessary steps to overcome it. This kind of thinking saddens me deeply, because living with anxiety year after year is certainly not your lot in life, and you don’t need to always be this way. There is so much more fulfillment and freedom for you to enjoy every day.

Believing that we are destined to live mired in our struggles decries the resilience of the human spirit, not to mention the ingenuity of the human brain in coming up with solutions every day that improve our quality of life on every front.

Embracing hope and striving for improvement and even transformation are characteristics of a mentally healthy person. Resist the urge to give up and embrace a fatalistic perspective. There are too many ways of treating anxiety disorders and too many stories of success for you to resign yourself to an anxiety-riddled future without hope and reprieve.

“I can fake it until I make it.” Another way to state this myth is “If I just act happy and appear like nothing’s wrong, then everything will be okay sooner or later. If I just muddle through, and suffer through it long enough, then my anxiety will eventually go away.”

But denial is rarely the answer to any problem. With anxiety, millions of people tragically suffer for decades or even a lifetime, never fully experiencing the joy available to them. This often happens because they believe they can “fake it” rather than address their anxiety in a meaningful and intentional way.

“I just need to practice the power of positive thinking.” Positive thoughts are powerful. But there is a dangerous assumption that can underlie this seemingly innocuous belief: If happy thoughts are the only answer, what do you do if happy thoughts don’t replace your anxiety? Do you experience feelings of shame or failure?

Our tool kit of solutions must include more than “happy thoughts.” We must be willing to consider and embrace a comprehensive arsenal of proven interventions.

As you begin to release the inaccurate beliefs that have been holding you back, I believe you will be astounded at the level of healing and wholeness within your grasp.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

More from Gregory L. Jantz Ph.D.
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