Anxiety is a common mental disorder, but symptoms and treatment options are often misunderstood. Learn the myths and facts of anxiety disorders.

Anxiety is the most common mental disorder, but it is often misunderstood or underestimated. Some of the common myths about anxiety include that anxiety is not serious enough for psychiatric treatment. This simply isn’t true. It is important to get to the bottom of what is fact and what is fiction when it comes to anxiety.

1. Myth: Anxiety isn’t a real illness.

Fact: Anxiety is a legitimate, diagnosable psychiatric condition.

Feeling stressed, worried or anxious are very common experiences. Feeling worried, whether it’s about work, finances or personal life, can help people anticipate potential problems and solve them ahead of time. Because feeling worried or anxious is common and, in small doses, may be helpful in anticipating problems, many people may question whether anxiety is a real mental illness.

Anxiety disorders go beyond the general worry of day to day life. They are characterized by feeling worried or fearful every day for six months. People with anxiety experience symptoms such as:

  • Tightness in the chest
  • Racing heart
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Fear of dying or losing control
  • Difficulty sleeping due to worry

People with an anxiety disorder diagnosable by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Health, fifth edition (DSM-5) must have a certain number of symptoms that persist for at least six months. Anxiety disorders can be extremely debilitating and distressing to an individual.

2. Myth: Anxiety will go away on its own.

Fact: Symptoms of anxiety are persistent and usually require treatment to subside.

People may experience certain situations or stages of life that might increase levels of anxiety. In contrast, there may be periods of time where someone with an anxiety disorder might have a slight reduction in symptoms or be able to return to some of their regular activities. This may feel like a person with anxiety no longer has the disorder, or that their symptoms have been “cured.” However, anxiety disorders can be chronic and persistent, and if not dealt with properly, anxiety symptoms are likely to return.

In addition, feelings of anxiety are usually linked to underlying personality traits or ways of thinking. Because of this, getting anxiety to go away often requires addressing certain aspects of how a person thinks or behaves. While this shift in perspective often doesn’t happen on its own, it can be achieved through therapy or coping strategies for anxiety. Although a person can certainly make progress and feel like their anxiety symptoms are under control, it is best to address symptoms and causes of the disorder head-on.

3. Myth: People with anxiety should avoid stressful situations.

Fact: Stress is unavoidable; anxiety treatments can help people cope with stressful situations more effectively.

People who suffer from anxiety often have certain triggers that can increase their symptoms, or lead to feelings of panic. These might include:

  • Personal or professional conflict
  • Social situations
  • Certain phobias, such as enclosed spaces or public speaking
  • Fears about health or death

Stressful situations or encountering an anxiety trigger can be extremely unpleasant for someone with an anxiety disorder. Although it may seem helpful to avoid stressful situations, this is extremely difficult to maintain. Stressful situations are a fact of life, and an important part of managing anxiety is learning effective coping strategies that help people manage their anxiety during times of stress.

Avoiding stressful situations altogether can impact a person’s ability to participate or function normally in their daily lives. On the other hand, finding effective ways to cope with stress can improve health and quality of life.

4. Myth: Anxiety disorders are not common.

Fact: Anxiety is the most common mental disorder.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorders, and 33.7% of adults in the United States will experience an anxiety disorder in their lifetime. There are different types of anxiety, and the prevalence varies depending on the disorder. The most common anxiety disorders are:

  • Specific phobias, or fear of particular objects or situations, with a 15.6% lifetime prevalence
  • Social phobia, with a lifetime prevalence of 10.7%

Different types of anxiety disorders can have different symptoms and presentations, but all anxiety disorders have a significant impact on daily living. Although symptoms may not always be obvious, most people know of someone close to them who suffers from an anxiety disorder.

Even though anxiety disorders are common, they may not be discussed publicly, or people may feel embarrassed or stigmatized by their symptoms. Due to the high prevalence of anxiety, it is important to understand the signs, symptoms and treatment options available.

5. Myth: Panic attacks can cause you to faint.

Fact: Fainting during panic attacks is rare.

A panic attack can feel different for different people. There is a range of symptoms of a panic attack, including a racing heart and difficulty breathing. Although these events are not common in panic attacks, some people may faint or vomit, which can add to the stress of experiencing a panic attack.

In some cases, feelings of panic are worsened by the fear of a fainting spell. Fainting during a panic attack is quite an extreme response, and the actual outcome of fainting is rare. However, feeling faint, lightheaded or unwell are common symptoms of panic and anxiety.

People may change their behavior leading up to or during a panic attack to avoid these symptoms altogether, or to keep them from getting worse. A person who is having or is worried about having a panic attack may locate exits ahead of time, find somewhere to be alone, lay down or take medication. These steps can help reduce feeling faint or lightheaded, and may also relieve some of the anxiety surrounding fainting itself.

6. Myth: Breathing into a paper bag prevents hyperventilation.

Fact: Breathing into a paper bag is unlikely to prevent hyperventilation, but breathing techniques can help reduce the likelihood of hyperventilation.

Hyperventilation, or rapid breathing and shortness of breath, is a symptom that may be experienced in moments of heightened anxiety or panic. A person who is hyperventilating might feel tightness in their chest, dizziness or like they can’t get enough air. Breathing into a paper bag is a strategy that’s been around for a long time, and it is used to help a person who is hyperventilating to bring awareness to their breathing. By seeing the bag fill with air and empty, the paper bag serves as a visual aid that the mechanism of breathing is working, and can help someone steady their breathing.

Although the idea of breath awareness and control is beneficial for someone hyperventilating, there are a few risks associated with paper bag breathing. For example, breathing into a bag might limit oxygen supply, which can worsen shortness of breath and increase anxiety. There are several alternative breathing exercises that can be effective in managing hyperventilation, such as holding breath, yoga breathing or diaphragmatic breathing. These techniques can help someone experiencing hyperventilation bring awareness to the breath and regain a normal breathing rate.

7. Myth: Social anxiety is the same as being shy.

Fact: Social anxiety and being shy are not the same.

There are multiple differences between being shy vs. having social anxiety. On a basic level, social anxiety is an anxiety disorder, while shyness is considered part of someone’s personality. Social anxiety disorder, or social phobia, involves a persistent fear of social situations, or extreme worry about performance in a social group. Someone with social anxiety is extremely preoccupied with the fear that they will embarrass themselves or be scrutinized by others in a social situation, and they will often avoid social situations or experience extreme anxiety or panic in the lead-up.

Although people who are shy may be more likely to experience social anxiety, the two are not the same. People who are shy may feel slightly uncomfortable in social situations, or prefer solitude, but being shy is not characterized by extreme anxiety or panic in social settings.

A key difference between shyness and social anxiety is the level of distress experienced. In most cases, being shy is a personal quality that is often not overly upsetting. Social anxiety, on the other hand, can be extremely debilitating and isolating.

8. Myth: It’s obvious someone has an anxiety disorder.

Fact: Anxiety disorders are often not noticeable.

Although anxiety is extremely debilitating to those who suffer from it, it is often not noticeable to people around them. It can often be hard to tell if someone has an anxiety disorder. This is not because they are not struggling, but may be due to:

  • Feeling embarrassed or ashamed of anxiety symptoms
  • Using other excuses to avoid anxiety-inducing situations
  • Experiencing situation-specific anxiety or panic attacks in private
  • Coping strategies that keep their symptoms from being noticeable

Sometimes, symptoms of anxiety are psychological, and might not present as a physical reaction, visible panic or apparent distress. Some people may feel anxious about having their symptoms noticed or pointed out by others, so they may work hard to hide them. In some ways, this can make anxiety worse or more difficult to manage. Given the prevalence of anxiety disorders, it is likely that most people know someone who is experiencing anxiety, but they may not be aware of it.

9. Myth: Medication is the only way to manage anxiety.

Fact: There are many ways to treat anxiety disorders.

There are many different types of anxiety disorders, and they can range in symptoms and severity. In the same way, there are many different treatment options available for people experiencing anxiety. Although medication is one option for managing anxiety and can be life-changing for some people, there are effective alternatives. For example, treatment strategies for anxiety can include:

Anxiety management strategies can often be combined, and some people may take medication and attend therapy. The best treatment method for any particular individual will depend on the type and severity of the anxiety disorder, as well as their personal background and preferences. Anxiety disorders often co-occur with other mental health conditions, and this should be factored into an individual’s treatment plan.

To discuss treatment options for anxiety related to a substance use disorder, contact The Recovery Village today.

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Editor – Megan Hull
Megan Hull is a content specialist who edits, writes and ideates content to help people find recovery. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Sarah Dash, PHD
Dr. Sarah Dash is a postdoctoral research fellow based in Toronto. Sarah completed her PhD in Nutritional Psychiatry at the Food and Mood Centre at Deakin University in 2017. Read more

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Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.