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Mental Health Misconceptions: Anxiety

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Most people have experienced a moment of anxiety at some time or another, maybe before a tough conversation, or a big life transition like a graduation or wedding. This can lead people to assume that anxiety is a natural feeling that comes and goes depending on your circumstances. 

One difference between a momentary feeling of anxiety and an anxiety disorder is the impact it has on your ability to function day-to-day. Like many mental health conditions, anxiety can often be difficult to understand unless you (or someone you’re close with) have experienced the symptoms firsthand. 

Here, we’ll debunk some common myths about anxiety to help you understand it better.

MYTH: ‘Anxiety’ is just another word for fear or stress.

It isn’t. People often use the words ‘anxiety’, ‘stress’, and ‘fear’ interchangeably. It’s important to understand the difference between these three words. The American Psychological Association makes the following distinctions: 

  • Anxiety: an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes (like increased blood pressure) when anticipating an impending danger, catastrophe, or misfortune.
  • Fear: an intense emotion aroused by the detection of imminent threat. Fear is present-oriented and short-lived, whereas anxiety is considered future-oriented.
  • Stress: the physiological or psychological response to internal or external stressors.

Feelings of anxiety, fear, or stress, and a clinically diagnosed anxiety disorder are two different things. 

MYTH: Everyone gets anxiety sometimes — it isn’t a disorder. 

Not really. While it’s true that most people get anxious at times, actual anxiety disorders are not the same as feeling anxious. Those diagnosed with anxiety are experiencing feelings that are taking over their life and impacting their ability to function.

Diagnosable anxiety disorders include:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): Excessive anxiety and worry occurring on most (or all) days for at least six months — about any type of event or activity. 
  • Panic disorder: A period of intense fear or discomfort in which you experience recurrent panic attacks. (A panic attack is a brief episode of panic, lasting 20 minutes or less.)
  • Phobia-related disorders: Persistent fear that is excessive or unreasonable, cued by the presence or anticipation of a specific object or situation (like flying, heights, or needles).
  • Social anxiety disorder: A marked and persistent fear of a social situation in which you will act in a way that will be humiliating or embarrassing.

If you think you are experiencing unusual, heightened, or prolonged anxiety, talk to your doctor or a licensed mental health professional about your symptoms. 

MYTH: I can’t possibly have anxiety. Anxiety disorders aren’t that common.

Actually, they are. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health condition in the US. About 18% of adults are affected by anxiety each year. 

Even though anxiety disorders are highly treatable, many people go months and even years before seeing a mental health provider. The Anxiety & Depression Association of America reports that less than 37% of those living with an anxiety disorder receive treatment. 

When people wait to get the care they need, it can be detrimental to their mental health. You can help normalize talking about mental health conditions with these tips

MYTH: Having a drink is an easy and efficient coping mechanism for my anxiety.

Absolutely not. It may be true that having a little bit of alcohol eases your feelings of anxiety in the moment. Unfortunately, substance use is not a long-term solution — in fact, heavy drinking has the potential to cause (or worsen) symptoms of anxiety.

The effects of alcohol on an anxiety disorder are short and impermanent. Additionally, if you become dependent on alcohol as a coping mechanism, you could be more at risk for developing alcohol use disorder. When you live with both anxiety and alcohol use disorder, the two conditions can progressively exacerbate each other.

MYTH: If I just learned to relax, I could snap out of it.

Not always. When anxiety starts to impact your ability to function in everyday life, it may be time to see a mental health professional. It’s no longer a matter of “learning to relax” anymore. 

Most people living with an anxiety disorder will require some type of dedicated help to establish proper coping mechanisms. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy that is very effective in managing symptoms of anxiety. Learn more about CBT here.

MYTH: If I have an anxiety disorder, the only solution will be serious medication.

Not true. In fact, there are two primary treatment options for anxiety disorders: therapy, medication, or a combined approach of both. You can work with your doctor or therapist to explore alternative treatment options before trying medication — especially if it is clear that you would prefer not to be on medication. 

Your therapist may work with you to incorporate breathing exercises, physical activity, mindfulness practices, or lifestyle changes (such as cutting back on nicotine or alcohol) to see how these changes affect your daily living.

Last Updated:
Published:
First Published:
January 31, 2022

Sources: 

American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Anxiety.  APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved December 15, 2021, from https://dictionary.apa.org/anxiety/

American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Fear.  APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved December 15, 2021, from https://dictionary.apa.org/fear

American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Stress.  APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved December 15, 2021, from https://dictionary.apa.org/stress.

Anxiety Disorders. (2018). National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Retrieved November 12, 2021, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders 

Facts & Statistics | Anxiety and Depression Association of America, ADAA. (n.d.). Anxiety & Depression Association of America. https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/facts-statistics

Smith, J. P., & Randall, C. L. (2012). Anxiety and alcohol use disorders: comorbidity and treatment considerations. Alcohol research : current reviews, 34(4), 414–431. 

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Impact of the DSM-IV to DSM-5 Changes on the National Survey on Drug Use and Health [Internet]. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2016 Jun. Table 3.10, Panic Disorder and Agoraphobia Criteria Changes from DSM-IV to DSM-5. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK519704/table/ch3.t10/

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Impact of the DSM-IV to DSM-5 Changes on the National Survey on Drug Use and Health [Internet]. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2016 Jun. Table 3.11, DSM-IV to DSM-5 Specific Phobia Comparison. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK519704/table/ch3.t11/ 

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Impact of the DSM-IV to DSM-5 Changes on the National Survey on Drug Use and Health [Internet]. Rockville (MD): Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US); 2016 Jun. Table 3.15, DSM-IV to DSM-5 Generalized Anxiety Disorder Comparison. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK519704/table/ch3.t15/

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