No, people with anxiety are not ‘putting it on’.

“You know that feeling of your heart skipping a beat when you’ve missed the last step on the staircase in the dark? It can feel like that all the time.”

“It’s a constant feeling of being overwhelmed. And then when I have attacks I have basically no control over my emotions. I usually can’t breathe and can’t stop crying.”

“It’s a tight feeling in your chest where you have an overwhelming sense of doom.”

These were the responses I received when I asked colleagues and friends what it feels like to experience severe anxiety.

There were many more responses, all equally as confronting. Many shared that they were on medication for their difficulties – and some said they’d probably be on medication for the rest of their lives. Some seek help from a psychologist, and some use exercise to cope.

But while many of us have problems with anxiety, and crave support from our loved ones and communities, recent research has found that there is still a huge stigma around anxiety among Australians.

Our Creative Director Mia Freedman has spoken openly about her problems with anxiety. 

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It's estimated that up to two million Australians suffer from anxiety, making it our most common mental health disorder. Yet research released by Beyondblue on Monday has revealed one in five Australians think people with anxiety are 'putting it on'.

The same research found that over 10 per cent of us aged 30 to 34 think people with anxiety are untrustworthy.

This research confirms something we often see anecdotally - that mental health problems are widely perceived as an all-purpose alibi. Anxiety is seen by many as a convenient excuse to avoid work, school or social events. Mark Latham has even argued that people use anxiety as a convenient excuse to avoid work or school, "creating a new generation of no-hopers wandering the streets".

Ouch.

Have people in the past used anxiety as an excuse to get out of work and/or school and/or socialising? Maybe. Probably. But does that warrant the assumption that all people with anxiety are 'putting it on'? Definitely not.

In academic spheres, these generalised perceptions are seen as dangerously stigmatising, and are described as one of the many aspects of Australia's poor 'mental health literacy'. A great deal of research supports the fact that we hold many unsupported and harmful beliefs about a range mental health issues, and that these beliefs can actually prevent people from seeking help.

"For people with an anxiety disorder, anxiety isn't a fleeting feeling." Image via iStock. 

For those people who have experienced, or are currently experiencing an anxiety disorder, the stereotypes that they're 'putting it on' and are 'untrustworthy' are deeply hurtful, and add another layer of guilt and isolation to an already serious mental health problem.

A huge part of the stigma towards anxiety comes from misinformation about what it is, when it becomes a 'problem', and what effect it can have on a person.

So what is it?

As the words of colleagues and friends demonstrate, anxiety is unmistakably debilitating and scary. For people with an anxiety disorder - anxiety isn't a fleeting feeling, and it doesn't only occur in response to threatening situations. It's ongoing and uncontrollable.

But there are several different types of anxiety, each with a specific set of symptoms and diagnostic criteria. Common disorders include Generalised Anxiety Disorder (which professionals argue should be renamed Generalised Worry Disorder - given that excessive worry is the cardinal symptom), Social Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sub-clinical problems with anxiety - that is, high levels of anxiety that don't necessarily meet the criteria for a diagnosable disorder - can be debilitating, too.

Watch Mia Freedman discuss how she manages her anxiety.

When does it become a problem?

Anxiety becomes a problem when it's persistent, and occurs in the absence of threat. Beyondblue chief executive Georgie Harman told SMH, "It is when these feelings don't subside and are ongoing without any particular reason or cause. Everyone feels anxious from time to time, but for someone experiencing anxiety, these feelings can't be easily controlled."

Feeling anxious before a presentation is normal. Feeling anxious when you wake up is not.

What effect can it have?

A person will only be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder when their symptoms interfere with their functioning - socially, academically or occupationally. And while we're used to seeing successful examples of people dealing with anxiety (like Lena Dunham) the truth is that for many people, anxiety is associated with a range of negative social, economic and health outcomes.

It's common for people with Generalised Anxiety Disorder or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder to avoid high-status, high-stress jobs. People with anxiety disorders have a greater likelihood of failing school or university, higher odds of marital instability, and are more likely to take time off work. They're also likely to experience other mental and physical health issues, in addition to their anxiety. (Post continues after gallery.)

The overwhelming consensus is that anxiety disorders are debilitating and chronic.

Ultimately, because of damaging attitudes and discrimination towards those suffering from anxiety, an overwhelming number of those who experience severe anxiety will never seek help.

But stigma goes even further than that. Thinking that people with anxiety are 'putting it on' is more than just an 'opinion' - because these types of  beliefs have real-world impacts. They affect funding. They affect employment. They affect people's sense of responsibility for their condition, and they affect people's opportunities.

So, no. People with anxiety are not 'putting it on'. And the belief that anxiety is just a 'convenient excuse' does far more damage that a handful of people 'faking it' ever could.

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