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5 Things People Misunderstand About Anxiety

What you don't know about anxiety may surprise you.

Source: Mangostar/Shutterstock

These are five crucial misunderstandings too many people still have about anxiety:

1. You can tell when someone is anxious.

Ironically, people with anxiety can look perfectly calm. I had someone in my office once tell me they were in the middle of a panic attack. I’m a little embarrassed to say that I hadn’t noticed. The image of someone hyperventilating and breathing into a paper bag does not always mesh with the reality. Many symptoms of anxiety can be experienced internally, without showing on the outside.

For example, someone can have a racing heart and tightness in the chest that is quite frightening to them, but even a trained observer might not notice. The same is true of other symptoms of anxiety, such as feeling sick to your stomach or dizzy. Of course, other symptoms may be noticeable, such as sweating or blushing, but you might not pair such symptoms with the fact that the person is feeling anxious. Similarly, a core part of anxiety may involve thoughts such as “I’m going to die,” “I’m going crazy,” or “I sound stupid.” Unless those thoughts are vocalized, you’d have no clue what was going on in the person’s mind.

2. If someone is anxious in one situation, they’re always anxious in the same or a similar situation.

People’s behavior can vary greatly from day to day or moment to moment. I’ve had clients who can manage things that typically provoke anxiety—for example, driving on a freeway—if the weather is sunny that day, but if it were cloudy, they might not be able to. That’s just one example I frequently hear—that the weather impacts what people feel they can do on any particular day.

Another variable I frequently notice is whether or not the person is in a good mood. For example, if someone is experiencing a positive mood, they may be more likely to undertake an anxiety-provoking task. Somehow the good mood mitigates the anxiety. Another key variable I hear anxious patients talk about is sleep: If they’ve gotten a good night's sleep, everything seems more manageable.

3. If someone is anxious, you should try to calm them down.

Of course, it’s distressing to see someone you care about experience anxiety. The knee-jerk response is to say, “Relax, it’s going to be okay.” Unfortunately, this can backfire in a couple of ways. One, the comment can feel diminishing, and the person isn’t likely to feel like you’ve heard or understood them. Two, it’s really quite difficult to simply relax on command. If it were so easy, the person would have already done it. After all, it’s no fun feeling anxious.

Another well-meaning, but probably misguided thing to say is, “Have you tried yoga?” or, “You should try meditation.” While yoga or meditation can help many people, sometimes people with anxiety have special difficulties with such activities, particularly meditation. The act of “letting go” or “focusing on your breath” without a lot of individualized guidance can make some people feel out of control or worse.

4. People with anxiety are weak.

I have worked with people who have anxiety for over 20 years, and they are some of the strongest people I know. They get up every day and do the very things that scare them. In addition to just dealing with everyday life, part of effective treatment involves having the person gradually enter the situations that cause them anxiety. I am always so impressed and in awe that they follow through with the treatment. People who are afraid of heights go up in tall buildings. People who are afraid of rejection ask others out for a date.

I always think about how much I hate roller coasters. They absolutely terrify me. I went on one once and swore I’d never do it again. If I went to a therapist, and they said I had to ride a roller coaster as a part of my treatment, I’m not sure I’d go back. But these other people do come back—and they usually get better. They learn to face their fears and live the life they want. Of course, the treatment is a lot more nuanced than one can fit into this article, but the point is, people with anxiety are anything but weak. They’re heroes in my book.

5. Anxiety is not a big deal.

Because we’ve all felt anxious at one time or another, we think that we know what someone else is feeling. But having an anxiety disorder is different than feeling stressed or nervous from time to time. Having an anxiety disorder means that anxiety is impacting your life. You’re likely avoiding things you need or want to do because of the anxiety. You’re thinking about the anxiety a lot of the time. You may be judging yourself because of the anxiety. Anxiety can be a really big deal. But it’s also highly treatable. If you have anxiety or know someone that does, seek help from a professional who knows how to treat it; not all professionals do.

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

You might also find this post useful: "Loving Someone with an Anxiety Disorder."