• Misconceptions and stigma around mental health issues makes it harder for people to seek the help they need

  • Lynn Crilly explores four common anxiety myths 

  • You can find a therapist or counsellor to support you with anxiety symptoms here 

One of the barriers to fully understanding an anxiety disorder and the ways it can affect people’s lives is that so much misinformation abounds in relation to it. It seems that many people either belittle its impact, dismissing anxiety as something everyone experiences to a greater or lesser extent. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, they believe that anxiety only really affects an unfortunate few, whose ‘nervy disposition’ or inability to cope with life’s challenges marks them out as susceptible to its effects.

In fact, anxiety is much more complex than this and myths such as these can be unhelpful and prevent people from getting to grips with, and really being able to understand, this all-consuming illness.

Among the many misconceptions that exist, the following are often quoted in relation to anxiety:
• Anxiety is not a real mental illness
• Someone with anxiety should avoid stressful situations
• Medication should be avoided by those with anxiety
• People with anxiety have a ‘nervy’ disposition.

Myths and truths about anxiety

Myth 1: Anxiety is not a real mental illness

Truth: While experiencing some level of anxiety is both normal and important, helping us deal with the challenges life throws at us, when it takes on the form of a disorder negatively affecting the decisions someone makes and their ability to fully live their life, often to a disabling degree, then it is indeed a mental illness that needs addressing.

Some people with anxiety will experience physical symptoms, but for many the effects are more to do with the constant worry or panic they experience rather than a stomach ache or headache they can describe to a doctor. These feelings may be hard to measure or even describe, but they are very real and need to be diagnosed and treated as much as a broken leg or debilitating back pain.

Those with anxiety cannot simply ‘snap out of it’ or ‘get over it’. In fact, dismissing their fears may well have the effect of making them worse. Instead, it is important to acknowledge those feelings and support the person experiencing them, just as people would for anyone with a physical illness.

Myth 2: Someone with anxiety should avoid stressful situations

Truth: Avoiding the stresses and strains of life simply is not possible, and neither is it actually desirable. Even for those who suffer from anxiety, exposure to challenges and difficult situations is absolutely crucial. Learning to deal with the things that terrify or stress them, in a way that is healthy and productive, may in fact be one of the ways of treating their worries or panic. Regardless of the difficult feelings such challenges may give rise to, those with anxiety should be able to do the things that are important to them. Avoiding the things they fear completely may have the converse effect of magnifying those concerns. Paying the anxiety that attention may give it the fuel to grow.

Myth 3: Medication should be avoided by those with anxiety

Truth: People often assume that anxiety is not ‘severe enough’ to need medication, and that taking it is a sign of weakness. They may also see medication as something to be feared (and often avoided), because of the concerns about its side-effects and whether it could lead to an addiction. Those concerns should certainly not be ignored, but neither should they put people off seeking medical help for anxiety.

Sometimes medication can be important for breaking the cycle of negative thinking, a kind of buffer, allowing people to step back and understand more clearly how to handle difficult or upsetting situations. Taken under strict medical supervision, as part of a wider treatment plan, medication may have a positive part to play.

The best person to advise a patient about whether medication might be suitable, and what the effects of taking that medication might be, is your GP. However, that is not to say that all responsibility should be handed to a medical practitioner. The patient themselves, along with their loved ones and carers, should ask about side-effects and remain alert to any potential problems they might cause.

Medication is also only one line of treatment; therapy or counselling can also be very effective, while other alternative therapies may also be helpful. Find a therapist for anxiety here.

Myth 4: People with anxiety have a ‘nervy’ disposition

Truth: Anyone – even those who seem the most confident and outgoing – can experience anxiety. While the symptoms in some people may be noticeable, others can experience them without anyone else realising for years. They may be able to mask their symptoms, or their friends and loved ones may dismiss the signs – such as stomach problems or substance misuse – as something else. For many, anxiety will grow from that constant ‘drip, drip’ of stress and worry that I have already talked about and to which anyone, from any walk of life, can be susceptible. The thing to remember is that if the behaviour of someone you care for has changed, look beneath the surface and talk to them to try and find out what is going on.

Hope with anxiety 

An anxiety disorder is recognised by the professional medical community and can be treated successfully with time, perseverance, determination, the right kind of therapy and, in some cases, medication. No two cases are ever the same, which is why treatment techniques and recovery journeys can be so varied. Sadly, there is no magic pill, and whilst acceptance, understanding, support and patience are paramount to the sufferer’s recovery, the only person that can really make the change is the sufferer. It is not an easy journey, but it is definitely one worth taking, to free them from their life-limiting spiral of seemingly constant worry ... remembering always that recovery is possible.

Lynn Crilly is the author of Hope With Anxiety

Further reading

3 steps to banish dating anxiety

8 ways to cope with eco-anxiety

Learning your triggers to overcome anxiety

Practical tips to manage coronavirus anxiety

Can hypnotherapy help with anxiety?