Everyone experiences anxiety in some state. It is a normal part of being human. Anxiety helps alert us to danger and is a natural by-product of growth and new experiences such as a first kiss, taking an exam, starting a new job, becoming a parent or finding out a loved one is ill.

Yet, according to the NIMH (National Institute on Mental Health), 40 million adults in America experience anxiety not as a fleeting, informative emotion but instead as a debilitating experience impacting relationships, work performance and self worth.

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This is the first of a four-part series addressing the common myths about anxiety which impede many from receiving the support they need while also addressing the facts, research and resources about anxiety and the anxiety spectrum. The hope is to bring more understanding to this serious issue while making clear one of the bravest things one can do is to acknowledge their struggles with anxiety and to reach out for specialized support as soon as possible.

MYTH: Anxiety is just a state of mind. Focus on the positive and you will feel better.

MEANING: Anxiety is a real mental health issue with complex origins rooted in genetics, family history, life experiences, temperament and physical health. While some treatment approaches address the impact of our thoughts and feelings, trying to think oneself out of anxiety can be a sand trap that only leads to more distress and despair. Telling someone in the throes of anxiety to just think about something positive and making it seem like it’s a quick fix by simply changing one’s focus only makes the person struggling feel worse.

Many who are impacted by clinical anxiety have the inaccurate belief they are somehow flawed, broken or damaged because it seems “everyone else” can handle anxiety in a more functional manner. Comparing one’s inner struggles to the outward appearance of others is a set up for feeling ashamed. This often results in keeping the pain of anxiety a secret and coping in unsafe ways such as: drugs, alcohol, food (restricting or over-eating), unsafe relationships, video games, excessive TV/movie watching and over-exercising to the point of injury. The truth is, being human is hard and a vulnerable experience for us all. We all have struggles, fears and no one is immune to anxiety. There is no single best way to handle the messiness of life.

MYTH: Anxiety impacts everyone the same.

MEANING: Some people are naturally hardwired to have more intense responses to change, distress, uncertainty and fear. Anxiety is not something to be minimized, generalized or devalued. The sooner one receives help the chance of better outcomes of treatment and sustained relief increases. Clinical anxiety involves a spectrum of symptoms and unique presentations that inform diagnosis and treatment. The anxiety spectrum is comprised of the following:

  • panic disorder
  • obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • social phobia/social anxiety disorder
  • specific phobias
  • generalized anxiety disorder

Be careful not to over research symptoms and self-diagnose. Being informed is important but trying to treat anxiety in isolation will have the opposite desired effect. Find specialized support and work with a team of people who have an in-depth understanding of the anxiety spectrum and also a great respect for each individual’s unique story.

MYTH: Anxiety is a reflection of a character flaw or not being strong enough.

MEANING: This myth is one of the most destructive lies perpetuated by anxiety. Usual fears are magnified when anxiety lurks. Clinical anxiety eviscerates trust in one’s ability to function and handle life. When it strikes, it is unbearable. Those who struggle with clinical anxiety report not being able to “turn their brains off”, making it hard to eat well, sleep, study, meet deadlines, work, or connect in relationships. But these struggles are in no way a reflection of character flaws or of not being strong enough. In fact, those who battle clinical anxiety are some of the most persistent and courageous individuals. Their experience with anxiety has given them a deep capacity to understand the depths of despair and the desire to keep trying to heal, even when hope reserves are low.

Stay tuned for Part II of this series: The Why Behind Anxiety.

Image via Teal Thomsen

20 comments

  1. I realize that this is late for comments but I also appreciate these “words”. My mother suffered from very bad anxiety and I could never understand why because I had not. My problem was endogenous clinical depression which was bad enough. Now for only the second time in my life anxiety is stalking me likely due to several factors It is a very uncomfortable feeling,partially due to weaning off of opioids pain killers taken for several months for ruptured discs and 5 separate surgical procedures during the last 7 months. That by itself is anxiety producing,. Yet it is a hard feeling to come to grips with. I don’t like it at all. Perhaps I just need to be patient and not so hard on myself. And keep telling myself that I am healing not just physically but mentally also.

  2. “But these struggles are in no way a reflection of character flaws or of not being strong enough. In fact, those who battle clinical anxiety are some of the most persistent and courageous individuals. Their experience with anxiety has given them a deep capacity to understand the depths of despair and the desire to keep trying to heal, even when hope reserves are low.”

    THANK YOU. Thank you. I plan to write that out and put it up where I can see it every day.

    1. Amen. Those words brought tears to my eyes. I’ve suffered from severe GAD since I was nine, and can’t number the years that I felt useless, sad and abnormal. I’m on a course of meds, therapy and yoga, and finally learning how to get through the pain other than just clenching my teeth and putting up with it. It’s been difficult realizing I have an illness that significantly affects my quality of life, but it is so wonderful to know that I am not alone.
      PS– you never know who is going through this pain. People are usually shocked to know that I have spent years of my life crying every day, and usually comment “but you look so happy”. Mental illness wears a strong mask, be kind because you never know what someone is enduring.

  3. I can’t tell you how timely this article was for me. I’m 54 years old and have never suffered from anxiety until the past 6-8 months. It feels crippling at times. I am working with a professional using EMDR techniques. It’s such a comfort to know I’m not losing my mind. I look forward to the next installment.

    1. Norma – Thank you for reading and for sharing your experience. I am so grateful you are working with an EMDR therapist – I have found this approach to be so profound and helpful to my clients as it addresses mind, body and soul in the healing process. Keep up the amazing work and be compassionate with yourself as you work on getting relief.

  4. the “throws of anxiety”?????? I think you meant “throes of anxiety.”

    Words are powerful – please use the right English language.

    1. After reading back my comment, I realize it sounds very rude. Please forgive me. I obviously have too much anxiety over a simple mistake!!

      1. Susan – Thanks so much for writing, for your good eye and for the grace in your follow up comment. 🙂 You are 100% correct – words do have so much power and it is important to strive to be as clear and correct as possible. When typos occur in my writing that I did not catch, I am grateful to have them pointed out so they do not go unaddressed indefinitely. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. Rebecca

  5. This very much hits home right now. I recently moved from my native L.A. to a rural Pennsylvania college town for my husband’s job and have found myself riddled with anxiety. My pulse has permanently quickened, I’ve been extremely short-fused with my children and husband, I’ve gained nearly 10 pounds, find it impossible to stay focused on anything really, and worst I keep having this reoccurring dream that we all die in a car accident. Really, always 1 second away from bursting into tears. And the whole time I’m thinking, “What the F*#I& is wrong with me??!” I’m on an emotional roller coaster, but this article has really reinforced that I need to seek some professional help. Thank you..can’t wait for the next installment.

    1. Erin – Thanks for sharing story and struggle. We all have our limits. Be gentle with yourself as moving, parenting, experiencing a new city, culture shock, exhaustion and being away from your support system would stretch anyone. Moving is one of the top triggers for stress and it can hit hard. I will be writing a post later on with resources but I recommend checking emdria.org for a Certified EMDR therapist in your area as you seek out options for clinical support. Take care of you – Rebecca

    2. Erin- I’m so sorry to hear your’e going through such anxiety attacks. I hope you receive the help you need and deserve! Also, you’re probably a LOT stronger than you think. I can’t imagine being in your situation (kids, a new town). Phew! Best wishes to your health.

  6. This article really speaks to the individuality of each person’s experience with anxiety, which is true for so many diagnosis. I really appreciate Rebecca’s reminding people it’s not about not being strong enough. So much of our medical language is framed in war metaphors and ideas. Yet often strong means being vulnerable and going to the root cause rather than trying to “muscle” your way out of something or “battle” yourself.

    Great article and expertise! Thank you Darling Magazine for your curation and Rebecca for her insights.

    1. Alexandra, Thanks for reading and commenting. Major props to Darling Magazine for wanting to address the issue of anxiety so many feel less alone or ashamed in their struggle. Take good care – Rebecca

  7. This is a tremendously brave and applicable column. The liberating fact that 40 million are sufferers from anxiety is, in one way, challenging to swallow while being a fact that combats loneliness. Demystifying a common misconception regarding this spectrum allows for a broader understanding and empowering approach to the resulting effects.

    http://www.onebrassfox.com

    1. Leslie – Thank you so much for reading and for your sharing your insights. Grateful Darling is creating a space to have a meaningful and normalizing dialogue about anxiety. It is a common humanity struggle and the more people understand that, shame is decreased and people are more likely to reach out for support and get much needed relief. I look forward to your thoughts on future posts! Rebecca 🙂

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