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12 common myths and facts about anxiety

Netdoctor (UK) logo Netdoctor (UK) 02/12/2019 Becky Fletcher
a person posing for the camera: Grappling with anxiety is tough enough without having to worry about everyday misconceptions. © Roos Koole - Getty Images Grappling with anxiety is tough enough without having to worry about everyday misconceptions.

Grappling with anxiety is tough enough without having to worry about everyday misconceptions. One such misunderstanding is that anxiety is uncommon when, in fact, almost five out of every 100 people in the UK suffer from the condition. A further nine in every 100 people battle mixed anxiety and depression.

To bring some clarity to a hazy situation, we spoke to Mike Ward, Panic and Anxiety Specialist and founder of the London and Hampshire Anxiety Clinics, and Dr Monica Cain, counselling psychologist and CBT therapist at Nightingale Hospital:

Myth: Anxiety is caused by a bad experience

✔️ Fact: Anxiety is complex – sometimes there might not even be a reason.

'We have to be careful we don't put these things in to cause and effect,' says Ward. 'While a particular experience or level of stress that is deemed too much by the individual can cause anxiety, it's not always the case. Anxiety can be thought of the anticipation of the future, the appraisal of uncertainty and how we judge the uncertainty.'

Myth: Anxiety will cause damage to the body

✔️ Fact: While anxiety manifests into physical symptoms, these will fade.

'One of the most common myths surrounding anxiety I hear from patients is whether it will do some long term physical damage to the body. Anxiety can have intense physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, rapid breathing and tightness in the chest area,' explains Dr Cain. 'These symptoms are often mistaken for a heart problem, although it is always important to check this out via a medical examination.'

'Research shows that most anxiety attacks last about 20-30 minutes before physical symptoms begin to fade: our bodies simply cannot sustain intense levels of physical arousal for long periods of time,' he adds. 'The flight-fight system is a short, sharp arousal to get us quickly out of danger, it will then tail off and we start to feel tired.'

Myth: Anxiety attacks make you faint

✔️ Fact: You may feel dizzy, but it's unlikely you'll faint.

'As the breathing intensifies, we hyperventilate to provide more oxygen for the heart to distribute to the arms and legs,' says Dr Cain. 'When we hyperventilate, we can often feel dizzy which causes people to think they will faint. In fact, a decrease in blood pressure causes fainting whilst during an anxiety attack there is an increase in blood pressure.'

Myth: It's obvious if someone has anxiety

✔️ Fact: You may be sitting next to someone at work – or even at the dinner table – and have no idea they are suffering.

'It will be unique for every individual, many individuals manage their symptoms without others noticing, even for years, and it can go unnoticed by others,' says Ward. 'Particular behaviours could be noticed – such as, avoidance, reassurance seeking, use of substances and alcohol, or withdrawal from social events. Others may demonstrate the "typical" physical symptoms associated with anxiety.;

Myth: Anxiety has physical symptoms

✔️ Fact: Anxiety manifests in many ways – sometimes this means no external symptoms.

'Some individuals report no physical symptoms, they just report the constant intrusive worrying thoughts,' explains Ward. 'Although, when we begin to bring attention to how the body is part of this, individuals may become aware of how their breathing changes or subtle tensions appear in the muscles when they start to think in a particular way.'

Myth: Anxious people should avoid stress

✔️ Fact: Confronting fears can sometimes dissipate feelings of anxiety.

'Managing anxiety will be very different for each person. Some individuals like to face their fears or phobias and are successful in dissolving the stress or phobia,' says Ward. 'It is also an opportunity to learn, grow and ask for the appropriate support to learn how to deal with particular situations resourcefully and effectively. Continually avoiding situations and phobias may strengthen the fear.'

Myth: Anxiety will just go away

✔️ Fact: Anxiety doesn't usually resolve itself. Sufferers need support.

'It's not ideal to let an anxiety disorder get resolved on its own,' says Ward. 'Individuals learn how to deal with anxiety in their own way and become accustomed to living in a particular way to manage the symptoms. Although they continue to lead a daily life, the distress of anxiety can be hidden. I would advise people to seek the appropriate support to understand how to deal with their anxiety.'

Myth: Saying 'this will pass' helps sufferers

✔️ Fact: There are certain phrases you should just avoid.

'Others include: "Just get on with it," "Stop worrying," "Why don't you just think differently about it," "Snap out of it," "Don't panic yourself" and "Remain calm," says Ward.

Myth: Medication doesn't help

✔️ Fact: For some people, medication can really help.

'Medication can be very helpful to bring anxiety levels down, so that we can problem solve as well as challenge unrealistic thinking,' says Dr Cain. 'We start to lose the ability to think clearly and challenge negative automatic thoughts - such as catastrophising; if we are continuously experiencing high levels of anxiety.'

Myth: Anxiety impacts every walk of life

✔️ Fact: This could be true, but many sufferers are happy, functioning adults.

'Anxiety doesn't always affect a person's whole way of being, it could just be situational and associated to specific events,' says Ward. 'But, again, it is unique to every individual.'

Myth: Sufferers have a nervy disposition

✔️ Fact: You can be confident and outgoing and still experience bouts of anxiety.

'Many individuals may not have experienced anxiety at all, and then a particular experience could trigger an anxious state,' explains Ward. 'There are particular traits and tendencies of behaviour and thoughts that do add to worry and nervousness – when people are in this mindset they may appear or feel nervous.'

Myth: People can recover from anxiety

✔️ Fact: This is only partially true.

'I'm not sure if "recover" is the right word, but people can reduce and move on from their anxieties,' says Ward. 'With either the appropriate support and therapeutic interventions or the assistance of medication, individuals can learn how to deal with the anxiety differently.'

Last updated: 02-12-19

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