Anxiety: Expectations Versus Reality

Lisa Martens

Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

There are many common misconceptions about anxiety that people run into every single day. me! who struggle with anxiety confront these misconceptions all the time. It can be exhausting, but here are just a few expectations (and realities) of anxiety:

Expectation: Anxious people cannot be depressed, because anxiety pulls you up.

Reality: The two can certainly coexist, and even play off one another, with the anxiety of doing something (and perfectionism) preventing one from acting, and then the depression/shame of not having done it comes. It's a vicious cycle of being too anxious to do something, and being too depressed to do something. While many people think of anxiety and depression as "opposites", the truth is, they are commonly comorbid.

Expectation: Alcohol helps with anxiety. Alcohol can help a person relax, be fun, and more social.

Reality: Using alcohol to cope with anxiety is an unhealthy form of self-medicating, and it only works in the short term. In the long term, alcohol makes anxiety worse. What's more, if a person commonly uses alcohol to regulate their anxiety, then they develop a dependency on alcohol, and may need it for simpler and simpler tasks. For example, doing a shot to cope with the pressure of giving a presentation may quickly turn into regularly drinking at work to cope with even minor tasks.

Expectation: If someone pays attention to their anxiety, they will make it worse. The best thing to do is to ignore it, and stop paying attention to it.

Reality: Ignoring and pushing down anxiety does not make it go away. In fact, repression might simply make anxiety come up in new, unexpected, and uncontrollable ways. Repressing feelings may make it harder for the sufferer to understand their triggers, because they pushed the initial cause down.

Expectation: If you just force yourself to do something that scares you, and get it over with, then you won't be anxious about it anymore.

Reality: Forcing oneself to do something may just make them go numb, or dissociate. This feeling causes someone to feel like they’re floating out of their body, and is a self-defense mechanism. It can take hard work to feel connected to one’s body if they are commonly dissociating as a way to handle their stress.

In a nutshell, forcing someone to do something they're not ready to do is not helpful. It can be very harmful and push them deeper down a dark path.

Expectation: People have had it much worse! Only people who have been through war zones or something equally terrible have any right to be so anxious.

Reality: Everyone is on their own journey, and anxiety does not differentiate between mild and severe threats. To someone with anxiety, everything and anything can seem like a very big threat. Whether someone developed anxiety because they had narcissist parents, a super strict learning environment, or lived in a war zone, the cause is almost irrelevant. What matters is that person working on their own anxiety issues. An analogy that helps with this concept is the idea that a person can drown in six inches of water or twenty feet of water, but drowning is drowning.

Expectation: I told someone with anxiety to get over it, and they did. Tough love works!

Reality: Tough love just signals that the person dishing out tough love is not someone to be trusted. Just because someone conceals their anxiety from you does not mean they are still not panicking on the inside. They may distance themselves from you, or simply choose to stop trusting in you. By showing someone that you are not a safe space, it only drives them away…but their anxiety will remain. Many people with anxiety learn to develop a calm exterior because their feelings have been punished or met with ridicule in the past. This does not mean that you have cured means you may have made things worse.

A lot of times, the tough love idea is loosely based on the concept of exposure therapy. Exposure therapy, however, needs to be done with the consent of the person. You imposing something on an anxious person because you're trying to "fix" them is not exposure therapy.

In general, tough love does not seem to work the way people once thought, often having negative side effects.

Expectation: People with anxiety are broken forever, and would not make good coworkers, partners, friends, or parents.

Reality: People with anxiety have their own needs just like anyone else, and if their needs are met and they are not in an environment where they feel they have to "pretend", and if they are able to manage their anxiety, then they can be active participants in the world around them.

Additionally, the brain itself is a flexible organism, and research on mental health issues is always evolving. New treatments and therapies are always coming out to help people with anxiety retrain their thought processes and better manage their problems.

Expectation: People with anxiety are inherently flawed.

Reality: Anxiety is a survival mechanism, and in some cases, is helpful, which is why today we have anxious can help you survive if you're always on the lookout! However, in a modern day, the fight-or-flight response is triggered when it is not always needed. Anxiety is not a flaw—It is a natural response to threats. Some people simply have a much more sensitive response to potential threats, and their anxiety then becomes maladaptive, or harmful.

Expectation: Once you know the source of the anxiety, then you're cured!

Reality: While knowing the source of your anxiety...and your super important, it does not automatically fix the feelings and waves associated with anxiety...just like knowing you have diabetes won't cure your diabetes. Knowing you have anxiety and why are very helpful pieces of information that can help form treatment plans and develop positive self-talk, but it is not a cure. Some people never know why they're anxious, and so saying that one must know the cause to be cured is discouraging to those who don't know and may never know why they feel that way.

When we begin to see anxiety as a normal response to danger, and not something to be shoved down, ignored, or forced away with substance abuse, we can then start to see people who suffer from anxiety as people...instead of stereotypes.

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