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6 Myths About Generalized Anxiety It's Time to Debunk

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Growing up in the South, I would often hear the phrase, “Ugh, you’re getting on my nerves” or “Oh, my nerves are bad.”

I always wondered what “nerves” were.  I knew “nerves” were a consequence of feeling “nervous,” but I was always confused.

When I took my college neuropsychology course, I learned the (broad) definition of “nerves” had to do more with a description of a bundle of fibers in the body that interact with the brain and spinal cord, transmitting sensations or messages to other organs.

So which definition was correct?

Both. To a certain degree.

Most people use the term “nerves” or “nervous” as a colloquial term to describe a mental state in which he or she feels nervous or apprehensive about what might happen. If these feelings are coupled with other symptoms, a person may receive a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder.

Generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, is described as excessive worry. A person living with GAD may feel an inevitable sense of doom about children, money, work or family. The worry, however, may impede daily functioning. GAD often accompanies depression.

Over the years as a mental health counselor, I’ve heard a lot of negative misconceptions and myths about anxiety, as well as panic attacks. I decided to write down the most frequently heard “untruths,” and why they are so untrue.

Myth #1: “People with anxiety blow everything out of proportion.”

Reality: People living with anxiety are not dramatic. Anxiety can be completely debilitating. A person diagnosed with GAD might be described as a “chronic worrier.” It is perfectly normal to worry about your children. When your children start kindergarten, you may worry about how they will adjust. When your  children start driving, you might worry about if others on the road will be safe. When your children start college, you may worry about grades, tuition and making good choices. Anxiety becomes serious when the worry becomes too much, and the anxious thoughts will not cease no matter how hard the person tries. It seems as though no matter how much you tell someone who has anxiety not to worry, in that person’s mind, something bad will happen, and that feeling often does not go away (without treatment).

Myth #2: “People with anxiety don’t ever want to socialize.”

Reality: It may be that people living with anxiety want to socialize, but they simply can’t. People living with anxiety often feel this impending sense of doom. There is a constant fear of failure, of disappointment or fear of making a mistake. Just the thought of socializing may evoke fear and anxious feelings. The thing about anxiety is that the more a person thinks negative thoughts, the worse the anxiety becomes. This cycle is often continuous.

Myth #3: “People who have panic attacks or panic disorders are ‘faking’ or want ‘attention.’”

Reality: Believe it or not, I’ve heard this one before. Panic attacks are extremely scary and very real. Often, people have gone to the ER thinking they’re having a heart attack, or even an asthma attack. Upon further investigation, they later find out that anxiety is the source of their symptoms. A panic attack usually occurs quickly. A person may have difficulty breathing, feel shaky, have a rapid heart beat or even have severe chest pain. I’ve found most people living with panic attacks don’t want attention at all, they just want the attacks to stop. 

Myth #4: “Taking medication for anxiety will make you an addict.”

Reality: There are several types of medication to treat anxiety, and taking them does not make someone an addict. While it is true that Benzodiazepines can be habit-forming, using these medications under a doctor’s supervision and care can make them safer. If a person feels that he or she is at risk for dependency, other medications can be used to treat panic or anxiety such as antidepressants, or beta blockers. I am a firm believer in the importance of having a conversation with a doctor to discuss possible side effects and concerns, so that a person may make an informed choice. The stigma or fear of taking medication should not hinder appropriate treatment. A medical doctor (or nurse practitioner, etc.) can answer any questions about medication.

Myth #5: “If I do take a pill, that will solve everything and my anxiety will be cured.”

Reality: A combination of medication management and talk therapy tends to work best. There are also techniques that a person can learn to utilize such as mindfulness. A therapist can work to help “re-train” the brain to change thoughts, and mindfulness can help a person learn to be present, in the moment, by focusing on the “here and now,” as opposed to what might happen.

Myth #6: “People living with anxiety never get better and will always feel ‘nervous.’”

Reality: With proper treatment, people living with anxiety can learn to retrain the brain, and if taking medication, he or she may eventually be able to stop. It’s so important to dispel myths to end the stigma. No one should suffer with anxiety when there are multiple, effective treatments available.

Myth: People who have anxiety must suffer forever.

Reality: It’s OK to seek help.

What myths and thoughts have you heard about anxiety? Do you think there is a stigma associated with anxiety? How has anxiety affected your life?

The above information is intended to be strictly educational. If you think that you may be struggling with anxiety, it may be time to see a personal mental health professional or medical doctor. If you or someone you know is feeling suicidal or needs help, contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Follow this journey on Call the Counselor.

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Originally published: May 12, 2016
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