Anxiety seems like a simple, straightforward topic. After all, it’s a common emotion—everyone feels anxious from time to time. And it’s a common condition. In fact, it’s the most common mental illness in the U.S. Anxiety disorders affect about 18 percent of adults every year.
And yet there are many, many misconceptions. Misconceptions that affect how we view anxiety and how we see ourselves. Misconceptions that affect how we navigate anxiety and how we navigate our lives—limiting them and making them less joyful.
We asked anxiety experts to share what they really want readers to know about anxiety. Below, they reveal a variety of interesting, and often surprising, insights.
Anxiety can be very helpful.
“[L]isticles that discuss the ‘top 10 ways to get rid of anxiety’ can unintentionally send the message that anxiety is dangerous and needs to be eradicated completely,” said Emily Bilek, Ph.D, an assistant professor of clinical psychology who specializes in anxiety disorders at the University of Michigan.
But anxiety isn’t just normal. It’s adaptive and useful. For instance, anxiety tells us when we need to be more aware and alert, such as crossing a busy intersection or traveling through a new city, said Zoë Kahn, a licensed clinical social worker in private practice, primarily seeing clients on the Eastside of Los Angeles. It tells us “what tasks we haven’t completed [and] what deadlines are looming.”
Psychologist Alicia H. Clark, Psy.D, also emphasized that anxiety can be rational and productive. “Anxiety is there to help us protect what we care about most, harnessing our focus and energy to do what is needed.”
For instance, you start worrying that your friend or family member hasn’t reached out to you in a while, she said. You wonder, what’s going on? Is there something wrong? What can I do to reconnect to them? That zap of worry “can be just the boost you need to do something proactive about it.”
You also worry about different work demands: Did I respond to that email? Did I carve out enough time to complete the project? Have I been thorough enough in my report? These worries help you remain laser-focused to get things done, and to do a good job.
You worry about your health: You’re tired, and get winded too quickly. You have an unusual mole on your skin. All these worries prompt you to take action, and consider whether you need more sleep, more movement or a medical checkup, said Clark, author of the book Hack Your Anxiety: How to Make Your Anxiety Work for You in Life, Love and Work (co-written with Jon Sternfeld).
Bilek likened anxiety and fear responses to house alarm systems. They help us respond appropriately when there’s a true danger or risk, she said. Some people, however, have an especially sensitive system. “It goes off when there is a true threat like an intruder, but also when there is a strong wind.”
We shouldn’t focus on eliminating anxiety.
Instead of trying to get “rid” of anxiety, Bilek encouraged readers to focus on how anxiety is interfering in your life. “When we identify what matters to us and may be missing from our lives due to anxiety, we have a better chance of figuring out how to solve the problem.”
Bilek shared this example: You love to sing, but you get nervous about performing in front of others. To quiet your anxiety, you stop auditioning for solos. You stop participating in group performances. And, over time, you stop showing up to rehearsals. In the short term you feel better, and find relief. But through avoidance, you also teach yourself that you can’t cope in these kinds of situations. And, as more time passes, you start avoiding other situations to avoid feeling anxious. Which is why you decide to see a therapist who specializes in anxiety and helps you face your fears in a safe, systematic and effective way (i.e., through exposure therapy).
In addition to facing your fears, it’s important to keep a curious, open mind about anxiety, Kahn said. She suggested asking ourselves this question in a loving, inquisitive way, without judging or criticizing ourselves: “What am I feeling and why?” “Sometimes it helps to use the tone of voice with yourself that you associate with loving kindness, such as a close friend or relative.”
If you feel anxious regularly, there’s a reason.
“[A]nxiety doesn’t just spring up out of nowhere,” said Laura Reagan, LCSW-C, an integrative trauma therapist in the Baltimore metro area who specializes in developmental trauma related to childhood experiences. That is, if you’re “anxious most of the time, with frequent spikes in anxiety that are intolerable and sometimes lead to panic attacks, that’s a signal that something more is going on.”
That more is typically rooted in traumatic events from childhood and/or adulthood or in unmet attachment needs from childhood—believing your emotions were too big, you were too needy, you had to be “good” all the time, she said.
This is common when you grow up with a primary caregiver who’s depressed, chronically ill, overwhelmed with anxiety or grief, or overwhelmed with the demands of raising a child, Reagan said. In other words, the caregiver is “unable to attend to the child’s emotional needs.”
And this can have devastating effects. For instance, trying to be “good” all the time suppresses your curiosity, anger, sadness and any other feelings your caregiver can’t accept or handle, Reagan said. This leads you to become detached from your inner wisdom, creativity and compassion, along with all the qualities that make you you, she said. Which leads to perfectionism, anxiety, depression, despair. It leads to being inauthentic and to distant relationships.
Reagan wants readers to know that you don’t have to live with this debilitating anxiety; you can feel so much better when you work with a skilled therapist who uses somatic methods to learn how your anxiety started and to resolve it. She noted that effective somatic methods include sensorimotor psychotherapy, somatic experiencing and yoga therapy (her favorite is LifeForce Yoga).
Indeed, Reagan used to think “I’m just an anxious person.” She struggled for years with “constant low-grade anxiety, which sometimes spiraled to panic and self-loathing and fear that things were never going to be OK.” Thanks to therapy, she learned that this was a response to her experiences with developmental and shock trauma. (Shock trauma is any event a person interprets as life-threatening or terrifying, she said.)
“Therapy that goes deeper, beyond coping skills, to help you access and heal the attachment and/or trauma wounds causing persistent anxiety will make you feel better than you might imagine is possible,” said Reagan, host of Therapy Chat, a podcast focused on psychotherapy, trauma, mindfulness, perfectionism, worthiness and self-compassion for therapists and the general public.
Reagan also suggested taking the ACES survey to find out if you’ve been affected by childhood trauma or attachment issues.
Anxiety is “a normal part of the human condition,” Reagan said. Anxiety is also useful, and can spark productive action. But when your anxiety starts shrinking your life, and dictating what you do and don’t do, it’s time to seek help. And here’s the good news: Anxiety disorders are highly treatable. The key is to see a mental health professional who specializes in treating anxiety.