All of us know anxiety very well. We might experience it before our exams or presentations. We might experience it any time we try something new. We might experience it every day. But while we’re very familiar with the thoughts — the slew of “What ifs” — and physical sensations that accompany anxiety, we might be less aware of how anxiety functions. We might be less aware of how our perspective toward anxiety affects how we feel — and even how it affects our lives.
Below, Joe Dilley, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating anxiety, revealed the facts behind three common myths about anxiety.
Myth: Anxiety is bad or a sign that something is clearly wrong.
Anxiety is unpleasant. Our palms might get sweaty. We might get dizzy or light-headed. Our stomach might get very upset. We might feel very cold or hot. We might feel an all-over tingling or shakiness. And when we feel these sensations, it’s understandable that we start viewing anxiety as completely bad or something we want to banish forever. We might yearn to relax and be constantly calm, to unravel our tightly wound selves. When this happens, we forget that anxiety can actually be helpful.
In his practice in Los Angeles, Dilley asks student athletes “whether they think they’d be ‘primed’ for their optimal performance on a test or in a game if they walked in so calm that they could fall asleep.” He also asks how their performance would be affected if they felt so anxious they’d take flight. They realize that both states aren’t helpful.
That’s because some anxiety — a 4 to 6 on a scale of 1 to 10 — is optimal for performance, he said. Anxiety prepares us to take action. It motivates us.
As Dilley said, we actually need some adrenaline pumping through our bodies in order to respond to challenges. “[W]e need to sense some degree of urgency to take [action], and we must register some degree of concern about how things would turn out if we didn’t take that action.” And the signs of anxiety, such as butterflies in our stomachs, are signs that the body is preparing itself for the challenge.
Anxiety isn’t just important for performance in school, at work or on the football field. It’s also part of our relationships. “When our needs aren’t met, we experience anxiety,” Dilley said. “We want [them] to be met and we want to help meet [the needs] of our close others.” This also goes along with caring what our loved ones think and thereby listening to them and embracing their input and feedback — no doubt important actions for any relationship.
Myth: Technology, some alcohol and medication provide helpful relief.
Again, because anxiety is unpleasant, we understandably try to alleviate it with all sorts of things. “It can seem like losing ourselves in our phones, having a drink or taking an anxiolytic medication are sure-fire stress relievers,” Dilley said.
While all three offer temporary relief, they can create more challenges. For instance, an occasional glass of wine can turn into a nightly ritual you can’t live without. In other words, it turns into self-medicating. Anti-anxiety medication, while effective, can be addictive. And it can exacerbate the very thing you’re trying to curtail, Dilley said. For instance, anxiety can actually be a side effect of these medications. Other side effects, such as dizziness, headache and nausea, can create additional anxiety.
“Technology is a stimulant, with the screen’s blue light inhibiting the production of melatonin, a natural sleep agent,” Dilley said. (He also talks about this in his book The Game is Playing Your Kid: How to Unplug and Reconnect in the Digital Age.)
Myth: Acknowledging anxiety only makes it worse.
“Maybe if I ignore it, it’ll go away.” “Maybe I don’t have to address it. It’s irresolvable anyway.” “When I think about it, then it makes me feel nervous, so I won’t think about it.” Do any of these statements sound familiar? According to Dilley, they’re examples of how we try to stop stress from getting the better of us. The problem? These “are all examples of stress getting the better of us.”
“If it’s so large that we have to avoid even thinking about it, we’ve already elevated it to a level it didn’t earn.”
Instead, he underscored the importance of naming our anxiety in order to tame it. Identifying what’s going on stops our anxiety from becoming this big, nebulous, intimidating monster. We bring it down to size. We’re able to gain a better understanding, manage our feelings and figure out the best actions to take.
For instance, one of Dilley’s clients has been putting off getting his driver’s license for years. He’s been so afraid of failing the test that he hasn’t even bought the book for the written exam. Working with Dilley has helped him to unpack his anxiety and prepare for the test. He’s realized that watching others get their licenses with supposed ease has made him fearful that experiencing difficulties reveals a deeper inferiority. They’ve worked through this fear and used deep breathing and positive self-talk to diminish his anxiety. Today, he’s taking driver’s ed and getting his required supervised hours behind the wheel.
There’s nothing pleasurable about anxiety. The signs and symptoms are downright uncomfortable and sometimes even scary. But once we acknowledge our anxiety, we can make great progress. We can turn away from temporary remedies. And we can use anxiety to spring us to action. One feasible step at a time. And if that feels overwhelming, consider seeking professional help. Because everyone can benefit from extra support.
Dilley cited these classical studies about the right amount of anxiety boosting performance:
Broadhurst, P. L. (1957). “Emotionality and the Yerkes-Dodson Law.” Journal of Experimental Psychology, 54, 345-352.
Yerkes RM, Dodson JD (1908). “The relation of strength of stimulus to rapidity of habit-formation.” Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology, 18, 459–482.
Hand Three image from Shutterstock.