You can’t just “calm down.”
Anxiety is a natural reaction to stress, but most people see anxiousness as a temporary state—something that crops up alongside an important work project or before a long flight to a city you’ve never been to. But for someone with an anxiety disorder, anxiety is a persistent and exhausting state.
Around 30 percent of American adults struggle with a type of anxiety disorder at some point in their lives, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Despite how common these mental health issue are, anxiety disorders can be tough to understand if you’ve never experienced them firsthand.
“I would say that anxiety has been overlooked a little bit over time,” says Khadijah Watkins, MD, psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medicine. “At this point, we’re realizing the degree of impairment [and] the degree of suffering that people with anxiety have.”
As anxiety disorders are becoming better understood by mental health professionals and accepted by the general public, here are some of the stubborn and dangerous myths about anxiety that still circulate.
MYTH: People with anxiety can just “get over it.”
It’s tempting to think people can control their thoughts—and therefore control their anxiety—but mental health disorders just don’t work that way. “The reality about anxiety disorders is you can’t stop it,” says Gail Saltz, MD, psychiatrist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medicine. “It’s impulse-driven, it’s your brain essentially doing it, and it’s not something that you can just volitionally say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’”
While anxiety is out of a person’s conscience control, it does tend to respond to treatment. Because of this myth, unfortunately, only about 37 percent of people with anxiety disorders seek treatment, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). This increases the risk of unhealthy coping strategies (like substance abuse) or self-harm.
You can also see treatment for anxiety as an investment in your long-term health: Working through and disrupting negative thought patterns can prevent you from relapsing later on, according to Dr. Saltz. Untreated anxiety can also lead to other health problems beyond your mental health Here are physical things anxiety does to your body.
MYTH: People with anxiety are just overreacting.
If you’ve never experienced an anxiety disorder, someone’s catastrophic thinking may seem irrational to you. But whatever you do, don’t tell them to “just relax.”
“Telling someone to calm down and not be so nervous is the worst thing you can do,” says Ben Michaelis, PhD, a psychologist in New York City. “Their experience is the world is really an unsafe place.” Telling someone to calm down dismisses their fears—which might be grounded in actual experiences and feel valid.
“Maybe there’s a kernel of truth in the thing that’s making the person anxious,” says Jennifer Hartstein, PsyD, a psychologist in New York City. “It’s just getting blown out of proportion because of the way we think about it.”
Telling someone they’re being irrational or they’re overreacting is unlikely to help. Proper treatment—usually a combination of therapy and medication—can address those fears and help people see the world as more predictable.
MYTH: People with anxiety are just shy.
Stereotypes of shyness and anxiety are often conflated, but people who are outgoing can have anxiety just like those who are more shy and quiet. Even someone with social anxiety disorder may have a vivacious personality hidden behind their nervous exterior.
In other words, anxiety isn’t a personality trait; it’s a disorder. People with anxiety disorders—compared to shyness—are those who are “avoiding things and are missing out on key aspects of life,” says Dr. Watkins. “When anxiety reaches a point that there is impairment [and] significant avoidance, we don’t want to think of it as something small. We do want to address it.”
Not sure if you have an anxiety disorder or just are a nervous person? Here are signs of a mental health disorder you might be ignoring.
MYTH: Treatment for anxiety will change who you are.
Some people with anxiety may fear treatment because they don’t want to lose personality traits that they see as strengths. “They may be very driven, quite perfectionistic, quite detail-oriented, and quite intelligent,” says Dr. Saltz. “These are things that tend to run with anxiety disorders.”
People with anxiety may see their perfectionism as the only thing helping them succeed at work or in their relationships. They may worry that treatment will force them to “take it down a notch” or “stop trying so hard,” which are terrifying thoughts to someone afraid of not being perfect.
But treatment for anxiety doesn’t diminish those personality traits. “Those are things that are ‘part and parcel’ of your brain,” says Dr. Saltz. Learning to use these traits without letting them become a dysfunction might even make it a bigger asset. “I think people need to think about the strengths so we can stop stigmatizing having these types of disorders.”
Facts & statistics. Silver Spring, MD: Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (Accessed on April 2, 2018 at https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics#.)
What are anxiety disorders? Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association. (Accessed on April 2, 2018 at https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/anxiety-disorders/what-are-anxiety-disorders.)