“Just stop worrying!”
“There’s nothing to worry about”
“It could always be worse!”
These are phrases that we have all heard and likely been told at some point in our lives. We may have been the ones to say these mantras to our loved ones, too. If you are someone who experiences anxiety, you may know how unhelpful these phrases actually are. These statements allude to anxiety being easy to dismiss or ignore, and that we have control over it. These myths about anxiety, unfortunately, contribute to further stigma around anxiety and mental illness in general. Let’s review some of the most common myths about anxiety, and identify how we can start to perpetuate more truth around anxiety.
Myth #1: Anxiety can be easily brushed off
Anxiety disorders don’t just impact your cognitive functioning; there are numerous physical and biological symptoms as well. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is the system in your body that regulates functions such as heart rate, breathing, urination, sexual function, etc. It’s also the system that produces the “fight-or-flight” response when there is a physical or logical threat. Our bodies are biologically designed to help defend ourselves or run away from danger. Therefore, when someone says to just “relax”, “chill”, or “calm down”, this can often be very difficult, or nearly impossible to do initially if the body perceives a threat. Luckily, anxiety is treatable. There are numerous skills that are helpful in managing anxiety, such as deep breathing to slow the autonomic nervous system and grounding skills to center thoughts into the present versus in the anxiety. To simply tell someone to “stop” feeling the anxiety they are feeling isn’t just harmful and dismissive – it’s also inaccurate.
Myth #2: Anxiety is just another word for “worried”
One of the most common myths is that anxiety is simply feeling “stressed” or “worried”. People often use the word and definition of anxiety as interchangeable with the other two emotions. While this is not necessarily wrong, it is far too simplified. Stress and worry are common symptoms of anxiety, but usually not the only signs present. Anxiety disorders include the following diagnoses: Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, and various Phobias. Some practitioners also consider Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as anxiety disorders. All of these diagnoses require more than worry or stress symptoms to qualify. Other symptoms of these diagnoses include fatigue, irritability, panic attacks, physical ailments such as headaches or gastrointestinal issues, difficulty concentrating, and sleep disruption. To consider any of these mental illnesses or conditions as simply worry or stress, is misguided.
Myth #3: Simply avoid your trigger
Naturally, we will want to avoid events, people, or situations that cause us anxiety. Our minds and body will signal us to avoidance or dismiss these thoughts or events as a protective mechanism. However, this is not a long term solution. Common myths of anxiety disorders include avoiding the trigger will lead to avoiding feeling anxious. While this may work in the short term, the longer you avoid exposure to the stressor, the larger and more fearful that situation then becomes. While it is uncomfortable or overwhelming to experience the stressor, teaching yourself you can experience it and learn to cope with it, is what can help manage and decrease the anxiety.
Myth #4: Exercise and healthy eating will cure your anxiety
Mental and physical wellness is a popular movement that has roots in a lot of great intentions. However, a common myth that is perpetuated time and time again is that exercise and “eating right” will cure your anxiety and depression. This is, once again, overly simplified. Exercise does help to increase endorphins and regulate mood, which can have an impact on anxiety, but does not fully treat it. Exercise can be a great tool to manage anxiety, but only if you find it to be a helpful tool for you to utilize. The same concept applies to food; there are no magic foods that will give you less anxiety. Eating consistently, eating foods you like, eating foods that taste good, eating to feel satisfied, and having reliable access to food absolutely helps with stability of mood and lower stress levels, but cannot cure your anxiety or depression.
Myth #5: It’s just a personality trait
Some people have personality traits or temperaments that may look a lot like anxiety, such as neuroticism or perfectionism. If you have these traits, you may be at a higher risk of developing an anxiety disorder, but someone with these traits are not inherently anxious. When someone’s anxiety is so high that it interferes with their job, their relationships, their ability to attend to daily tasks, that is no longer a “personality trait” – that is a mental illness. Whether it be biological or environmental anxiety, being neurotic or a perfectionist may largely play into a diagnosis of anxiety, but you can have these traits without having clinically diagnosed anxiety.
Through therapy, medication, or other alternative methods of treatment, you can help manage symptoms of anxiety despite having a temperament that may be predisposed to anxiety. When we can understand how true anxiety presents itself for our friends and loved ones, we can continue to decrease the stigma around experiencing it, and ultimately become more successful in our management of anxiety disorders.
If you have depression induced anxiety, a great treatment method you can explore is TMS therapy. TMS therapy is a non-invasive treatment that works by transmitting electromagnetic stimulation into the portion of your brain that controls your mood. It’s been successfully used as a treatment for depression for many years, and has been associated with also effectively reducing the symptoms of anxiety that arise from depression. TMS therapy is FDA cleared, medication-free, painless, side-effect-free, and is covered by most major insurance companies, Medicare and Tricare.
Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (n.d.-a). Myths and Misconceptions About Anxiety | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. Retrieved November 9, 2020, from https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/myth-conceptions.
Harvard Health Publishing. (2020, August). Recognizing and easing the physical symptoms of anxiety. Retrieved November 6, 2020, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/recognizing-and-easing-the-physical-symptoms-of-anxiety
National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.-a). NIMH » Anxiety Disorders. Retrieved November 9, 2020, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml#part_145336