Anxiety is a common human experience, and nearly everyone goes through it at some point in their lives. However, it remains one of the most misunderstood and stigmatized mental health issues in today’s society. It’s crucial to shed light on this often-misunderstood topic to foster empathy and more compassion, support, and effective treatment for those who live with anxiety. In this blog, we’ll explore the reasons why most people misunderstand anxiety and what we can do to bridge the gap of understanding.
Equating Anxiety with Normal Stress or Worries:
One of the primary reasons anxiety is misunderstood is the tendency to equate it with everyday worries and situational stressors. People may say things like, “Oh, we all get anxious sometimes,” or “Just relax, it’s nothing to worry about,” or “Life is stressful, deal with it.” Here’s the difference though, between normative worry, appropriate stressors, or anxiety:
- Normative worry: this involves the brain’s design to scan for problems, which could include dangerous situations, in order to resolve them. The key here is “resolve them,” meaning worry guides us to a plan and once we enact that plan, the worry goes away. Worry is ultimately action-oriented.
- Appropriate stress: Having a stress response to something stressful is also something we’re designed to do. This is also action-oriented. If we have a job interview, we ‘gear up’ and get ready with preparation and practice. We might feel physiological signs like fast heart beat, or sweaty hands, etc. During finals, we anticipate it’s going to be tough to manage all the responsibilities and tasks, and we make a plan to get through it. Like worry, once the stressor passes, so does the elevated body or mind responses.
- Anxiety: Anxiety occurs when the stressor or the plan designed by worry doesn’t resolve the anxiety thoughts or physiological responses. This makes anxiety is a different beast altogether. It involves persistent and overwhelming feelings of fear, worry, or dread even when the stressor is gone. The nature of anxiety is typically broad as well, meaning we excessively worry about many things, not just one area and it’s exceptionally difficult to redirect our thoughts to something soothing. We also typically experience many physiological symptoms like pounding heart, racing thoughts, apprehension, etc. that can interfere with daily life.
“Just Think Positive” Mentality:
Another misconception that often arises is the belief that individuals with anxiety can overcome their condition simply by “being positive.” While a positive mindset can be beneficial, it’s essential to understand that anxiety is a complex mental process that goes beyond mere positive thinking. Suggesting such as “just think positive” reduces the experiences to a simplistic solution. This can actually increase cognitive bypassing, a move that suppresses the emotional experiencing within us and can make matters worse. Beyond that, it can make it harder for individuals to seek help and support as it’s very invalidating or dismissive.
Stigmatization and Weakness Perception:
Unfortunately, mental health stigma remains prevalent in our society across many areas. Many societal/cultural responses to someone experiencing anxiety include negative labels such as being weak, overreacting, or lacking resilience. This misconception not only negative categories genuine experiences, it discourages open conversations about anxiety and adds an additional layer of shame and self-doubt to those already battling the condition. Recognizing anxiety as a legitimate mental health concern, with physiological impacts can break down stigma and improve compassionate care.
Invisible Nature of Anxiety:
Some people have physiological symptoms that are easily noticed: sweating or shaking for example. But anxiety can also be invisible to the outside world, occurring inside a person’s mind. People with anxiety may appear “perfectly fine” on the surface while having an intense struggle internally. As a result, friends, family, or colleagues might not comprehend the extent of their loved one’s anxiety and may unwittingly downplay its impact. Raising awareness about the hidden aspects of anxiety can foster better understanding and support.
Assuming Anxiety is Always Irrational:
Remember from earlier, anxiety is when our “normal” worries or stressors escalate. So the origins of anxiety are generally quite rational but they move into the realm of irrational as it intensifies. Labeling someone’s anxieties as irrational can be counterproductive. What might seem irrational to others is a very real and distressing experience for the person with anxiety. Validating their feelings and experiences, and offering compassionate support can make a world of difference.
Understanding anxiety is vital in supporting those who live with it. Remember that anxiety is not just a fleeting worry or a matter of “thinking positively.” It’s a complex and real mental health issue that affects millions of people worldwide. By educating ourselves and engaging in open conversations, we can break down the barriers of misunderstanding and provide the support and compassion that individuals with anxiety truly deserve. Let’s be allies in the fight against anxiety, fostering a world where mental health is treated with the care and understanding it deserves.