Myths about anxiety

Even though Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental illnesses in Australia, there are still lots of myths about which need to be busted!

Anyone can experience anxiety. In fact, anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental illnesses in Australia.

Know someone who’s often worried or stressed? Could it be an anxiety disorder? And what’s the difference?

Read on and we’ll bust seven common myths surrounding anxiety and set the record straight.

Myth #1. Feeling anxious = having anxiety

We’ve all felt anxious – but there’s a big difference between everyday stress and an anxiety disorder.

If you’ve ever felt like you were on edge over a looming work deadline, this doesn’t necessarily mean you have an anxiety disorder. In fact, a little bit of stress isn’t always a bad thing (what else keeps us working away on a project until we’re happy with it?!).

So, what’s the difference between these everyday feelings, and an anxiety disorder?

Well, people with anxiety disorders have constant fears or thoughts that get in the way of their daily life. They can also have physical symptoms like panic attacks, trembling, sweating, a racing heart, trouble breathing, and nausea – and some will go to great lengths to avoid situations they fear.

To sum it up: an anxiety disorder is more chronic and distressing than the sinking feeling you get in your stomach before an exam.

Myth #2. Real anxiety means having panic attacks

Many think anxiety is all about panic attacks – and while panic attacks can be part of anxiety, there are actually different types of anxiety disorders, each with different symptoms.

Here’s a run-down:

  • Generalised Anxiety Disorder: This involves a person feelings anxious most days, worrying about lots of different things, from work, to money, to friends, to their health.
  • OCD: This means someone has obsessive and/or intrusive thoughts (like a fear of germs), which they often try to control with repetitive behaviour (such as constantly washing their hands).
  • Social Phobia: This is an intense fear of being criticised, embarrassed, or humiliated in everyday scenarios (like eating in public, speaking publically, or making small talk).
  • Panic Disorders: This means someone experiences recurrent and unexpected panic attacks.
  • Specific Phobias: This is a constant and irrational fear of a thing or situation. It could be the fear of spiders, sharks, sharp edges, storms, or even the number 13.
  • PTSD: This develops after someone’s been exposed to a trauma (like a physical attack or war). People often have flashbacks or dreams and will do their best to avoid reminders of their trauma.

Myth #3. Avoidance is always the best policy

If something seems scary, you avoid it – it makes sense, right? It may seem like sensible to steer clear of the things that trigger anxiety, and in some cases it can ring true, but it’s actually usually not the answer.

When it comes to life threatening situations – yes, avoidance is a good approach to take. But for those with an anxiety disorder, avoiding fears (like being in a crowded place or eating in public) can actually strengthen and reinforce the anxiety.

Remember the saying ‘you need to face your fears’? Well, when it comes to anxiety, this can be true – although it of course needs to be done safely and preferably with some professional guidance.

There are many success stories where people have managed their anxiety by gradually being exposed to the source of it. This allows them to cope with it and not avoid, so they no longer feel like running the other way.

Myth #4. The best medicine is… medicine

Lots of people think that medication (such as an antidepressant) is the only way to treat an anxiety disorder but it’s definitely not the case. Different things working for different people – and although medication can be a very successful treatment, the good news is, many are able to manage anxiety disorders without needing medication at all.

Other treatment options include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (based around changing thinking, attitudes, behaviours and beliefs) and anxiety management/relaxation techniques (think hypnotherapy, visualisation, meditation, counselling and breathing exercises).

People have success with both these approaches – and often people see the best results with a combination of the above.

Myth #5. Dig deep and there’ll be a logical reason you have anxiety

We like to believe everything can be explained by logic and that anxiety is due to some reason deeply rooted in our past. By definition anxiety disorders are irrational. Sometimes there is a reason which makes sense, but for many people anxiety can’t be linked to any particular cause whatsoever.

In general, anxiety disorders tend to be caused by a combination of factors (even when they’re triggered by a particular thing or event). While past experiences do play a part, the true ‘cause’ may be very complex and can involve things like a family history of mental health, substance abuse, challenging life experiences, physical health, personality, and genetics.

Myth #6. If all else fails, there’s always the good ‘ol paper bag trick

Ever seen a movie where someone’s hyperventilating, and manages to calm down by breathing madly into a paper bag? This is because when you are having a panic attack you can hyperventilate (you can breathe too fast or too deeply, so that your body has too much oxygen). The ‘paper bag trick’, therefore aims to increase the amount of CO2 in your body.

Unfortunately, like many things we see in movies, this isn’t the best way to manage anxiety.

This is because carrying around a paper bag can become a kind of ‘safety blanket’ for people with anxiety, who begin to believe they can’t cope without it.

In general, it’s a good idea to look beyond this old chestnut and find other ways to manage. While hyperventilating is scary, it’s not actually dangerous – and it can be managed using breathing exercises, exercise such as walking, and other techniques.

Myth #7. Just wait it out – it’ll pass

This one’s important – if you have an anxiety disorder, please don’t ignore it. People with anxiety often think it will go away on it’s own, but without help or treatment, it can often worsen.

Anxiety disorders are also associated with depression in 60% of cases which may also need to be treated by a medical professional.

Although anxiety and depression can be as debilitating as a serious physical illness, less than half of the people experiencing these conditions seek help.

So, if you or someone you or someone you know has an anxiety disorder, it is best not to delay treatment.

If you need to talk to someone about mental illness or a crisis in your life, please consider calling Lifeline on 13 11 14, beyondblue on 1300 22 4636, or the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.