Things You’re Getting Wrong About Anxiety

Things You’re Getting Wrong About Anxiety

One of my old roommates was a person who dealt with intense, sometimes crippling anxiety. I watched as the disorder brought her to tears and sat helplessly by as she panicked over things many would consider mundane. For a large part of our friendship, I didn’t truly grasp that anxiety was a real condition she was struggling with.

Unfortunately, I hate to admit that I would often observe her and think to myself, “I don’t get why she’s being so dramatic. This is unnecessary. There’s nothing she could possibly be this worried about.” I, like many observers, didn’t understand just how wrong my thoughts towards anxiety were.

At the same time, I was thinking these unfair, untrue things, I was also learning about and discovering my own anxiety disorder (funny how the world works right?). Being a person who comes from a very small town, where ways of thinking are often stuck in previous centuries, anxiety was an illness that I was taught to not take seriously. I can’t even remember ever saying the word “anxiety” back when I was living in my hometown. Did I even know it existed? Probably not. There was both a stigma and disbelief surrounding it.

These ways of framing anxiety aren’t new. I’m not the only one guilty of it and it’s far more ordinary than one would like to imagine. There is plenty that is misconceived about anxiety, too much really. If you fall into the category of a person who maybe doesn’t understand exactly what anxiety is, that’s ok. Also, like me, you can educate yourself and learn ways to not only support those you know who suffer from the illness (yourself included), but you can help them and love them when the shadows of anxiety suddenly loom large and overwhelm.

Common Misconceptions About Anxiety

Here are some of the most common misunderstandings society has towards anxiety. Use these examples to grow and see those who have anxiety about what they really are, not the stigma the world has placed on them.

Misconception: The Illness Isn’t A Huge Problem
The first misplaced opinion some have towards anxiety is that it isn’t all that common. While I wish this myth was actually fact, it isn’t. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the nation. Over 40 million adults age 18 and older experience anxiety, studies show. That’s 18.1% of the population. Cold hard research alone proves that anxiety is indeed extremely prevalent. Let’s just go ahead and consider that myth dispelled.

Misconception: Anxiety First Arises From a Specific Trauma
Next, often the idea is held that anxiety stems from a specific issue, trauma or trigger. Not unusually, people will believe that anxiety disorders come from the person having a poor childhood, for instance. This could not be more false. Anxiety is caused by anything and everything. It pops up in random, unexpected moments with little to no warning.

A person doesn’t have to face a terrible upbringing or event to develop anxiety. In can be born from what can be perceived as “nothing” and it is unexplainable. That’s the nature of the beast. Anxiety isn’t rational, and those who deal with it know this. They can’t always pinpoint exactly what is making them feel sick to their stomach, but yet they do.

Sure, sometimes people are able to identify the cause of their anxiousness, but not always. For Sharareh Drury, who has been living with anxiety since high school, she’s been able to realize certain things that trigger her anxious emotions.

“Triggers for me are criticism and critiques, people not agreeing with something I felt strongly about, someone making me feel stupid or as if an idea or project I did didn’t matter. I think in the end it really comes down to confidence. If something, anything makes me lose confidence, I get a full on attack,” she said.

At the same time that Drury is able to pinpoint certain reasons for anxiety, she also can’t always do that and does not know how her anxiety first began. Her anxiety is not a result of just one moment, trigger or event.

“I don’t really know what is the initial start of my anxiety … for me, it feels as if it comes from nowhere, and it just feels like a dark cloud over me,” Drury said.

As you can see, this falsity can’t be claimed as fact as it isn’t always true. Anxiety can stem from anything or from nothing.

Misconception: Everyone Displays Anxiety in the Same Way
For Melissa Woods, author of Getting Past Anxiety, anxiety means the crippling inability to get herself on a plane. It means sleepless nights and fits of tears. For Drury, anxiety is feelings of laziness and being lethargic. It brings on stronger emotions than normal. For me, anxiety means bouts of discontent or irritability.

While all of the above hold the commonality that they are difficult ways for anxiety to be expressed, they also are all different manifestations of the disorder. Anxiety doesn’t just look like shortness of breath or nonstop tears. It can be shown in many ways, all varying depending on the person. And, the same person may exemplify their anxiety in more ways than one as well. There have been plenty of times where my anxiety didn’t display itself through me being snappy, but rather through me crying.

Misconception: Telling a Person to “Just Breathe” or “Calm Down” Will Fix Everything
At this one, I can’t help but laugh. What you may not get is that people with anxiety are already trying to calm down. They often know the issue is only in their head and that with some clarity and deep breaths they could relax a bit. But anxiety is a monster that holds on to you for dear life. So, shaking it isn’t as simple as counting to ten as you exhale.

Drury knows first hand how wrong this idea is.

“I think people believe anxiety can just go away like it can be waved off. For example, if someone feels sad, you can try to tell a joke and that person will laugh and feel better. With anxiety, it does not work that way. You could tell me 50 jokes and I could still be here in my anxiety, feeling sad, insecure, dark,” she said in response to my email questions.

Yes, things such as breathing techniques or meditating can truly help a person with anxiety, that’s undeniable. However, when anxiety sufferers are in the dark stages, seeing the light isn’t an easy feat. The brain has its own mind when neurotransmitters are stuck in a loop.

Misconception: People With Anxiety Are Weak
From an outsider’s perspective, it’s understandable why people with anxiety could be seen as weak. We worry about what others would consider silly and can be extremely fearful of things like trigger events, encounters or situations. But this couldn’t be more false.

Thinking a person with anxiety is weak is like saying a person with diabetes is, too. Anxiety is a real, diagnosed disease. Just like arthritis, cancer or heart disease. It has to be diagnosed and treated like everything else.

And just like how people who suffer from the physical diseases mentioned above are often considered stronger because of the hardships they face, the same can be said about those with anxiety. Anxiety is an issue that people with the disorder have to overcome daily. It’s a disease that both physically and mentally exhausts you. Unlike those without anxiety, those with it have an extra hurdle they encounter each day. So, weak is not a word that should ever be associated with anxiety.

Now What?
If you’ve ever thought one of the aforementioned myths, use this article and the stories of people like Drury and Woods to teach yourself the truth. Do research and be curious about anxiety and eventually, you will see that your previous ways of thinking were indeed wrong.

“I think more awareness of anxiety and expressing the many forms of it can help. Anxiety is not a one-size-fits-all issue. Like for me, I have my own triggers that cause it and emotions and problems that arise after it starts. It could be a completely different experience for someone else. I think if more of us are open to discussing it, it’ll be less judged or looked at in a negative way,” Drury said.

And hey, it’s ok to not understand exactly how those with anxiety disorder feel. We don’t understand what’s going on in our brains half the time either. All that matters is that you try to. And in the interim, offer those with anxiety love and support, instead of the judgment I once displayed before seeing the error of my ways.

Photo credit: Unsplash by Matt Artz