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.
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