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The myths and the facts about anxiety

There’s a great deal of confusion surrounding anxiety and how to treat it. Psychologist Jennifer Garth sorts the truth from the fiction.

There are myths everywhere when it comes to anxiety disorders, which can make dealing with them more difficult. To help you master your fears, we’ve consulted specialist psychologists to debunk nine common fallacies about anxiety and panic disorders.

MYTH: Anxiety is a sign of weakness
FACT: “Anxiety is not a sign of weakness, a personality defect or poor character. The weakness myth is fuelled by social comparisons,” says Dr John Forsyth, director of the Anxiety Disorders Research Program in Albany, New York. “If you see your life as full of anxiety and emotional pain, while perceiving others as happy and carefree, you will naturally start to believe that there is something wrong with you.”

Instead, remind yourself you are not broken, but you will need to take responsibility for your thoughts and behaviour. Start by channelling your energy into the things you can control and change. By taking charge of your resources and focusing on your goals you can create the kind of life you want.

MYTH: Anxiety isn’t a real illness
FACT: “It’s a pervasive and debilitating illness that can last for months, even years, and has the potential to lead to other illnesses such as depression and substance abuse,” says Dr Sarah Edelman, author of Change Your Thinking. “It’s normal to feel anxious when confronted with a threatening situation, but if your anxiety is intense and occurs too often, affecting your ability to function, it may be classed as an anxiety disorder and you should seek help.”

MYTH: Always carry a paper bag in case you hyperventilate
FACT: Hyperventilation isn’t necessarily dangerous, and carrying a paper bag at all times will only heighten your anxiety. It’s a safety behaviour based on the fear something dangerous is about to happen and you need a contingency plan. Safety behaviours are just another form of avoidance. In fact, according to extensive research, safety behaviours, whether they involve carrying a brown paper bag or repeatedly washing your hands to avoid germs, have the opposite of the desired effect. Rather than making you feel safe, they feed into the cycle of anxiety.

MYTH: Therapy for anxiety takes years
FACT: There are many types of therapies available. Some are short-term and take weeks – not years – before you see an improvement. For example, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a short-term, 10- to 12-week treatment option for anxiety. During your sessions with a psychologist you are taught how to identify and change destructive or disturbing thought patterns that create and maintain anxiety. Behavioural change involves gradual and repeated exposure to feared situations – and practising deep relaxation and breathing techniques.

MYTH: Anxiety disorders are not all that common
FACT: Anxiety disorders affect 6 per cent of New Zealand adults and are far more common than most of us realise. The ‘anxiety disorders are not common’ myth is fuelled by community misinformation and stigma about mental illness. Many people don’t discuss their anxiety with friends, colleagues, or even family for fear of judgement, so they suffer in silence. Many more anxiety disorders, such as social anxiety, isolate people, making us believe anxiety isn’t all that common.

MYTH: People with anxiety should just avoid whatever is causing their fear
FACT: Avoidance has the potential to turn everyday worries and fears into potentially life-shattering anxiety disorders, says Forsyth. Instead of running from unpleasant emotions, experts suggest doing the opposite. “The more you expose yourself to your fears and learn to deal with uncomfortable feelings, the more you can master them.” Aim to confront situations, objects, sensations or thoughts that trigger your anxiety, but not all at once. Gradually expose yourself to less intense fears and then move on to more difficult fears.

MYTH: There’s nothing you can say to help an anxious person relax
FACT: There are many ways you can help someone deal with their worry, fear or anxiety. Ask them questions. Find out what they’re anxious about. Try to draw them back into the present moment. Do this by getting them to talk about their values, goals and the direction they want their life to go in, rather than buying into their worrying thoughts.

MYTH: Anxiety disorders are genetic
FACT: Current estimates place the genetic contribution at about 30 to 40 per cent,” says Forsyth. This means your genes may make you more vulnerable to anxiety problems, but inheriting an anxious predisposition isn’t the same as inheriting an anxiety disorder. What makes anxiety a problem is how you relate to your fears. The good news is you can change and control the way you think and feel.

MYTH: All I need is a tipple to get through this
FACT: In the short term alcohol may ‘take the edge off’ and help you relax, but it can lead to addiction. Research published by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in the US found 36.9 per cent of people with alcohol dependence met criteria for an anxiety disorder the previous year. Self-medicating is not an effective management option. Instead get help for your anxiety and treatment for addiction.

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