Many people hold various myths that can stall and sabotage their anxiety treatment. In fact, these beliefs can fuel and perpetuate anxiety. Below two anxiety experts share five myths about managing anxiety and anxiety in general.
1. Myth: You need to know the origin of your anxiety in order to treat it.
Fact: “What starts an anxiety disorder and what keeps it going can be two very different things,” said Simon A. Rego, PsyD, director of psychology training and the CBT Training Program at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
Also, it’s typically easier to treat anxiety by targeting the thoughts and actions that perpetuate it in the present, he said.
Rego gave the example of someone with a phobia of dogs. This person’s anxiety might have been triggered when they were younger, and a dog at a park barked at them. However, tracing this original trigger probably won’t “cure” them of their phobia today.
What’s more helpful is to explore what the person is currently thinking — such as “all dogs are dangerous” — and doing — such as avoiding dogs — to keep the fear alive, he said.
Take another example that involves insomnia. An acute stressor, such as moving to a new apartment, might have triggered a person’s insomnia, he said. However, what perpetuates their insomnia today are their beliefs about sleep (e.g., “If I don’t fall asleep fast, I’ll never get to sleep; everyone else sleeps so well”), and their behaviors (e.g., sleeping in later and later; watching the clock).
2. Myth: Worry is preventative and helpful.
Fact: While bad things, of course, do happen, they don’t happen as often as people predict, Rego said. “So when you worry and nothing bad happens, it’s easy to believe that it was because of your worrying when in fact it is likely just a coincidence — an example of what’s called a ‘spurious relationship.’”
A similar myth is that worrying will somehow stave off negative emotions if the bad event does occur. However, the reality is that “when something bad happens, you’ll feel just as bad, and what’s worse is that you’ll also have felt bad each day you spent worrying.”
3. Myth: An anxiety disorder is caused by a chemical imbalance, which requires medication.
Fact: There are many causes of anxiety disorders, Rego said. These include genetics; a stressful or traumatic event; observing parental anxiety; or it might be a combination of all of these.
4. Myth: Benzodiazepines successfully treat anxiety.
Fact: Physicians often prescribe benzodiazepines, such as Xanax, Klonopin and Ativan, to patients who have anxiety.
“However, these patients frequently continue to struggle and present for psychological treatment at a later date, feeling anxious, overwhelmed and relying on their benzodiazepine for a small amount of temporary relief,” said Marla W. Deibler, a clinical psychologist and director of The Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia, LLC.
Taking a pill may “take the edge off,” she said. But it triggers a vicious cycle: The anxiety quickly comes back, and they reach for another pill.
“Unfortunately, these patients are unlikely to successfully overcome their anxiety until they are no longer relying on benzodiazepines.”
That’s because there’s a risk for both physiological and psychological dependence. Benzodiazepines are habit-forming and reinforce the belief that you can’t cope with anxiety on your own, causing a reliance on external sources, she said.
They also can undermine therapy. Benzodiazepines enhance the action of GABA, or gamma amino butyric acid, which reduces the excitatory response, Deibler said. “In essence, it dulls the emotional experience, thereby reducing the potential for anxiety [or] panic intensity.”
The problem is that patients need to experience anxiety in a systematic way with a clinician, so they can practice the coping skills they’ve learned and realize that they can minimize their anxiety, she said.
“If their ability to experience anxiety is blunted by benzodiazepines, they may be less likely to benefit from CBT and may have a higher potential for relapse.”
5. Myth: Anxiety must be eliminated.
Fact: “We sometimes see patients — and referring doctors — who believe that anxiety is bad and needs to be gone, that any sign of anxiety is an alarm that something is very wrong and they should not be experiencing that,” Deibler said.
Such beliefs actually perpetuate anxiety. When you believe that anxiety is intolerable and you focus on pushing it away, it’s more likely to upset you, and make you feel out of control, she said.
However, anxiety is natural and normal, Deibler said. “Anxiety is our body’s normal reaction to what we perceive as threatening.” It’s an adaptive response to stress, she said.
It also propels us to get to work on time, ace tests, meet deadlines and avoid potentially dangerous situations.
Ironically, it’s when you begin to realize that anxiety isn’t a real threat that it’ll pass more easily, she said.