With more than 40 million Americans over the age of 18 currently struggling with some form of anxiety, there’s a lot of misinformation floating around out there. From old wives tales to downright dangerous “cures,” if you’re struggling with an anxiety disorder, one of your first orders of business should be separating fact from fiction.
One important fact that a lot of people don’t realize is that “anxiety” is actually a blanket term that represents a group of disorders. Each anxiety disorder has different symptoms, but all the symptoms cluster around excessive fear and related behavioral disturbances.
The following conditions are all unique forms of anxiety disorders:
- Panic disorder.
- Social anxiety disorder.
- Specific phobias.
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are also anxiety-related disorders, although they have been grouped separately in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).
Anxiety is big business in the United States. According to The Economic Burden of Anxiety Disorders, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, we spend a whopping $42 billion each year in the name of treating anxiety.
Some sufferers self-medicate, while others pretend their anxiety doesn’t exist – both of which lead to negative outcomes. To help you better understand and manage your anxiety, let’s take a look at nine common myths related to these disorders and the people struggling with it.
Here are the 9 most common anxiety myths.
Myth #1. Anxiety Isn’t Really an Illness
While it’s true that a small portion of human anxiety is natural, extreme forms of anxiety are a completely different animal. When anxiety takes on the form of a disorder, it causes problems in your everyday life to the point of total impairment. And though we can’t see anxiety on x-rays or detect it in blood samples, this very real condition can be diagnosed and treated.
Myth #2. You Should Always Avoid Stressful Situations
In a perfect world, we’d all be able to avoid the stress and strain of everyday life. Since that’s not possible, we have to learn how to deal with stressful situations in a way that is healthy. One thing to remember is that it’s absolutely possible to be anxious and still accomplish things each day.
Not every unexpected situation or event is going to cause you to feel those waves of anxiety. Avoiding crowds, open spaces, public speaking or arguments with a family member only reinforces the anxiety. In fact, this notion is the basis of the most popular forms of treatment today, such as exposure therapy, as well as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)—which encourages patients to do what is important to them, regardless of the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that may arise.
Myth #3. Breathing Into a Brown Paper Bag Decreases Anxiety
This is one of, if not the, oldest wives tales for people having an anxiety attack. When overcome by symptoms of a panic attack, many people take short, rapid breaths; some people even hold their breath. This reduces the oxygen intake and increases your heart rate. To prevent hyperventilation, many rely on the brown paper bag trick, but studies of its effects are mixed. And for some, carrying around a brown paper bag all the time actually increases anxiety.
“Carrying a paper bag is what I would consider a safety behavior,” says Greg Hajcak, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Stony Brook University in New York. He goes on to say that safety behaviors are essentially forms of avoidance that keep you stuck in anxiety. They don’t make you feel safe; they make you feel more anxious.
Myth #4. Just Wait it Out…Anxiety Always Gets Better With Time
This train of thought is not only misguided; it’s also dangerous to your health. According to most experts, people with anxiety disorders put off seeking treatment for about 10 years.
Instead of being proactive in treating an anxiety disorder, they delay getting help in the hopes that things will “get better” at some point. Truth be told, anxiety generally worsens over time. It doesn’t just dissipate and become a problem of yesteryears.
Another concern is that more than half of those diagnosed with an anxiety disorder are also struggling with some form of depression—both of which need to be addressed.
Myth #5. There’s No Treatment for Worrywarts
Experts agree that anxiety is likely genetic to some degree, but it’s absolutely a condition that can be managed. We now have effective treatments for all forms of anxiety, from multiple types of medication to therapy and exercise.
If your mother was a “natural worry wart,” that does not mean you have to accept that trait and doom yourself to a life of debilitating anxiety. The most effective approach, according to Dr. Hajcak, is cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. In a Journal of the American Medical Association study of 134 older adults, CBT reduced anxiety symptoms far better than other approaches and those positive effects lasted for at least 1 year.
Myth #6. A Couple Glasses of Wine or Smoking Pot Are Good Anxiety Solutions
Self-medicating is a common problem among people with anxiety disorders. It’s common, but certainly not effective or long-lasting. And another very real problem with self-medicating is that, in a relatively short amount of time, you can develop an addiction on top of your anxiety disorder. Before you know it, you’ve got two very real and very dangerous conditions on your hands.
Drugs and alcohol might give you a moment’s relief from the effects of anxiety, but in the end these substances will work against you. It’s just not worth it.
Myth #7. If You Really Wanted To, You Could Snap Out of Your Anxiety
If this misguided train of thought sounds familiar, that’s probably because you’ve heard it in conversations about drug addiction. It’s really easy for people who have never struggled with anxiety or chemical dependency to hand out advice in the form of “just get over it.” Dismissing someone’s anxiety only exacerbates the problem; their fears are very real to them in the moment.
“People who say that don’t really understand the degree to which someone is experiencing anxiety,” says Dr. Hajcak. Instead, try saying something like, “I know you’re scared, but you’re safe with me.” Or, “Hang in there; it will pass soon. Take slow, deep breaths. I’m here and I won’t let anything happen to you.”
Myth #8. Taking Benzos Successfully Cures Anxiety
Modern medicine has made huge advances; it seems like there’s a pill to cure everything these days. While doctors often prescribe benzodiazepines like Xanax, Valuim, Klonopin or Ativan to patients struggling with anxiety, these medications certainly don’t offer a cure.
You might take a pill and 30-minutes later you feel less anxious, but the feelings come back when the pill begins to wear off. Next thing you know, you’re reaching for another pill.
“Unfortunately, these patients are unlikely to successfully overcome their anxiety until they are no longer relying on benzodiazepines,” said Marla W. Deibler, a clinical psychologist and director of The Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia, LLC. “Benzodiazepines are habit-forming and reinforce the belief that you can’t cope with anxiety on your own, causing a reliance on external sources,” she said.
Myth #9. If Your Child Suffers From Anxiety, Force Her to do the Things She is Afraid of
When it comes to your child’s anxiety, there’s a huge difference between encouraging her to work through fears in a healthy way and simply forcing her to do the things she’s terrified of. Forcing her to do something she’s already afraid of will likely make her even more anxious. Instead of helping, it can heighten the anxiety she already has and make her less receptive to any kind of help or treatment in the future.
If your child has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, your job is to help her figure out which fears are rational and which ones aren’t. The pivotal key here is working with her; the process takes time and you’ll need to go at her pace. Behavioral therapies can also play a big role.
As you can tell, there’s a lot of competing information out there but self medicating or not dealing with your anxiety symptoms are not the best course of action. There are treatments and therapies that help identify and treat the cause of your anxiety. At American Addiction Centers, we have effective types of therapy that can be tailored by medical professionals to address your unique situation. Call to speak with one of our admission navigators about getting you on the path to manage your anxiety.