By Trevor McDonald
edited by Annabelle Parr
People are talking about mental illnesses, like anxiety disorders, more often and more openly. Social media and access to digital content has helped facilitate the conversation. However, there is still a stigma surrounding mental illness, and while easy access to content can help reduce shame, stigma and misunderstandings about mental illness, it can also spread mistruths and foster outdated myths. This hurts those who suffer from mental illnesses as well as those trying to understand and support them. So let’s clarify some things about anxiety.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), anxiety disorders are the most common American mental illness, affecting 40 million adults – 18% of the population. Despite this substantial figure, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) estimates that only 33 percent of those suffering will receive treatment.
Anxiety is a blanket term. We all know what it feels like to feel anxious. But when we talk about anxiety as a mental illness, we may be referring to any number of disorders, from generalized anxiety disorder to social anxiety disorder to panic disorder to a specific phobia. Though all of these things fall under “anxiety,” each manifestation looks and feels a bit different.
Fortunately, anxiety disorders can be treated. Having a supportive network that includes mental health professionals and ideally, understanding loved ones, is critical. The first step toward encouraging and facilitating treatment is dispelling myths and providing education for both those struggling with anxiety and the people around them. Here are five of the biggest myths about anxiety disorders:
1. “You don’t really have anxiety. Everyone gets anxious/nervous!” Of course, everyone feels anxious or stressed sometimes. But according to the DSM V, when someone has an anxiety disorder, they feel excessively anxious about a number of things more often than not, and it significantly impairs their ability to function in a major area of their life. We must understand that there is a big difference between feeling anxious about a particular event or challenge, and feeling the chronic anxiety that comes with an anxiety disorder. Furthermore, it’s important not to toss around statements such as “I’m so OCD” when all we mean is that we like our desk organized. Minimizing an anxiety disorder in these ways undermines the challenge that something like generalized anxiety disorder or OCD can pose to people who are struggling with them.
2. “You can get over anxiety with yoga, taking a walk, or meditation.” While taking a holistic approach to wellness is smart, and such activities can help with the symptoms of anxiety, taking a yoga class won’t “cure” an anxiety disorder any more than it will spina bifida. Though it can be tempting to offer advice to try to help those struggling with anxiety, it’s important not to minimize their experience or assume that you have a solution to offer them. Only a mental health professional should be offering any kind of “prescription” or suggestion for treatment.
3. “Anxiety means a person is weak, or they must have had a really bad childhood.” The former is never true; the latter could be part of the foundation for an anxiety disorder, though this is certainly not always the case. Trauma can kick start an anxiety disorder, but it’s not the only source. A big reason people with mental illnesses don’t talk about their condition is because they don’t want to be seen as weak or feeble, even though they’re not. It takes tremendous strength to live with any disorder. Invisible disabilities can be especially trying because people can’t “see” the disorder a person is battling.
4. “Anxiety isn’t that big of a deal.” Everything is relative. Anxiety disorders exist on a spectrum. If you know someone with anxiety, you can’t gauge how severe their disorder is. But unless you are a therapist, psychiatrist, or doctor, it’s not your job to gauge the severity of someone else’s anxiety. What you need to know is that anxiety is a big deal to the person suffering from it, no matter where they fall on the spectrum. Further, unlike a broken leg, anxiety can’t be seen on the outside. So someone may appear perfectly put together on the outside, but is suffering in silence on the inside.
5. “I won’t be able to relate to someone with anxiety.” This myth is usually based on a person’s fear that they won’t know what to say when someone is struggling with anxiety. It’s human nature to want to “fix” things, but anxiety can’t be fixed that easily, especially by a non-professional. Remember that it’s not your job to “fix” someone’s anxiety or make it go away. All they really need from you is empathy. And listening well is far more important than knowing what to say. So when talking to someone with anxiety, let them lead the conversation, don’t judge them, and don’t try to fix it. Let them know that you want to understand and that you hear that they are struggling. You might also offer to help them connect with professional help.
We’ve come a long way in our understanding of anxiety disorders. Psychological research has given us a solid understanding of anxiety and how to treat it effectively. Of course, there is always more to learn, but now the bulk of our work lies in sharing our understanding with the community and eliminating the damaging and unnecessary stigma that still surrounds mental illness. Working to un-learn false claims and myths of the past is a big step in the right direction. Doing your part to educate yourself and others will make a big difference in the lives of everyone with an anxiety disorder.
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If you or someone you love might benefit from acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), or biofeedback for anxiety, depression, stress, or PTSD, or if you would like more information about our therapy services, please contact us at (858) 354-4077 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.