health

A doctor debunks the 10 biggest myths about anxiety.

We all know someone affected by anxiety, whether we realise it or not. It could be you, a family member, a friend, a colleague.

That’s because anxiety is the most prevalent mental health condition experienced by Australians. Around 17 percent aged 16 to 85 have experienced it or a related disorder in the past year, and one in three women and one in five men will develop an anxiety condition at some point in their life.

Yet despite the prevalence of anxiety, there are still misconceptions about what it is and how to manage it. As a mental health professional, I am on a mission to dissolve these common myths, and to create more awareness and understanding about strategies to tackle anxiety head on.

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Here is the truth behind ten of the most common misconceptions about anxiety:

Misconception 1. Anxiety is a sign of personal weakness.

Anxiety affects people of all ages and walks of life. It does not discriminate and is not a sign of weakness. This perception must change, as it makes people who are dealing with anxiety less likely to seek support. When people with anxiety do seek professional help from Clinical Psychologists and other therapists using scientifically supported techniques, we see amazing results.

Misconception 2. Stress and anxiety are the same thing.

While stress can act as a trigger for anxiety, it is not the same thing as anxiety. Stress is caused by day-to-day stressors such as an exam or losing a job and is usually a short-term problem. Anxiety is a feeling that persists even after the stressor is gone or a threat is mediated. With anxiety, you could find yourself becoming distressed or frightened for no apparent reason. Anxiety can become disabling to the point that irrational fears can take over our body in the form of a panic attack and result in feeling trapped. It can cause significant impairment to social, occupational and other areas of functioning.

Misconception 3. Medication is the only option for treating anxiety.

Although medication can be an effective and invaluable component of anxiety treatment for moderate to more severe anxiety, for ongoing effective anxiety management the evidence supports undertaking scientifically supported therapies for anxiety with clinically trained therapists, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. These can be highly effective either on their own or with additional medication. At the Sydney Anxiety Clinic we take a holistic approach to treating anxiety, offering clinical psychology treatment, in combination with other scientifically supported methods including mindfulness and meditation, to name a few.

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Misconception 4. Anxiety is caused by stress and cured by less stress.

Not everyone who experiences stress develops anxiety. Conversely, living a relaxed, stress-free lifestyle does not guarantee you will be free from anxiety. While less stress can reduce symptoms, it may not cure you of the disorder itself. As we move through life there will inevitably be stressors in our environment and personal lives, it is important to focus on managing our reactions and paying attention to the thoughts we have around stressful events rather than trying to avoid stress entirely. Learning how to manage anxiety, to change unhelpful thinking processes and unhelpful behaviours are powerful tools for those suffering from anxiety.

Dr Lowinger chats to Mia Freedman about anxiety: how it presents itself, what causes it and what can be done to treat it.

Misconception 5. Treatment should focus on the cause of anxiety.

While it is important to identify causes for anxiety, therapy should focus on what is maintaining the anxiety. Awareness is an important first stage of treatment as we can only change what we are aware of in the first place. During anxiety treatment, people learn strategies to replace what is maintaining the anxiety including unhelpful thoughts, emotions and behaviours with more helpful alternatives. If a person has had a traumatic life experience sometimes it is important to look at things that went on at the time of the trauma if these events are contributing to what is maintaining the difficulties in the present. However, a person does not have to experience a traumatic life event in order to experience anxiety. There are many varied causes of anxiety, some biological, some environmental and some a combination of both.

Misconception 6. People with anxiety just need to ‘snap out of it’.

Anxiety cannot be turned on and off. Many people hold the misconception that those suffering from anxiety should be able to turn it off, or ‘snap out of it’. Anxiety is a mental health condition and if it were easy to turn off the symptoms there would be no such issue, as everyone who suffers from the condition would gladly hit that off-switch if they could.

Misconception 7. Anxiety attacks can cause fainting.

While panic attacks can involve feelings of dizziness and hyperventilation, fainting would be rare. In fact, panic attacks can increase blood pressure, whereas low blood pressure is a more common cause of fainting.

Misconception 8. Bad thoughts should be avoided or suppressed.

Many people say things like ‘snap a rubber band on your wrist when you have a bad thought’. In reality, the thoughts you resist persist. Studies have demonstrated that suppressing your thoughts makes them stronger and occur more often. Similarly, an attempt to avoid anxiety tends to reinforce it and can become demoralising.

Misconception 9. Anxiety is not a real medical condition.

Anxiety disorders are just as real and serious as physical disorders such as diabetes and heart disease. Anxiety disorders can compromise our overall health by causing us to have poorer sleep and increased physical stress from anxiety symptoms. Anxiety can impair social and occupational functioning and decrease our ability to enjoy life. An anxiety disorder should be recognised as a mental health condition and treated as one.

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Misconception 10. Anxiety is a chronic or lifelong condition.

Clinical anxiety is a mental health condition that causes prolonged fear, suffering and avoidance in a person’s life. The good news is that anxiety is highly treatable and requires a combination of mindset, lifestyle and behavioural strategies. Some examples include replacing unhelpful thinking processes with helpful ones, such as how to stand up to worry and not get hooked into worry thoughts, or feeling empowered with strategies to approach avoided and valued situations with increased assertiveness and wellbeing. Additionally, lifestyle changes such as nutrition, exercise and increasing interpersonal connections can help minimise anxiety.

Although anxiety is the most prevalent mental health condition in Australia, it is highly treatable and we continually learn about new scientific research that enables us to achieve more effective results. I continue to drive forward with my mission to raise awareness about anxiety, to help reduce these misconceptions and help people to feel more comfortable to seek out the help they need.

Jodie is a Doctor of Clinical Psychology, the CEO/Founder Sydney Anxiety Clinic and Mind Strength.

If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety, support is available. Please call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.

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