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17 Harmful Myths About Anxiety That You Need To Stop Believing

It's not a ~real~ illness, you say?

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1. MYTH: Having an anxiety disorder = getting anxious about stuff.

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There's a big difference between normal, everyday anxiety and actually having a disorder. "It's important to note that all of us can feel — and look — anxious from time to time, and in certain situations even the most calm of people can be triggered to feel anxious," Simon Rego, Psy.D., director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York tells BuzzFeed Life. "That does not mean they have an anxiety disorder."

If you have an anxiety disorder, those feelings don't go away and just get worse over time.

2. MYTH: If you have anxiety, you should avoid stressful situations so you don't make it worse.

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This works — but only in the short term, says Rego. Obviously, you're going to feel the instant gratification of not facing whatever it is that makes you anxious AF, but this approach will screw you over in the long run. "The problems here are that anticipatory anxiety increases the more you avoid and you'll likely have to face the stressful situation again at some point," says Rego.

Translation? The more you avoid something, the more you'll build it up in your head, and the more anxiety-inducing it'll become.

3. MYTH: Anxiety comes in one form.

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You might think that having an anxiety disorder just means having symptoms of excessive, irrational fear and dread and that's kind of true. But there are actually several different types of anxiety disorders under the umbrella, each with unique symptoms. The most common are Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Social Anxiety Disorder (or Social Phobia), according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

People with GAD experience chronic worry about day-to-day things, from work to their health to just getting through the day, even if they have little or no reason to worry. With social anxiety, on the other hand, that worry is mostly triggered by other people, whether interacting with them or fearing judgment from them. There's also Panic Disorder, which involves sudden and repeated attacks of irrational fear — aka panic attacks.

4. MYTH: Everyone experiences anxiety the same way.

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Even within a specific anxiety disorder, the symptoms can still differ from person to person. Meaning, one socially anxious person might only have symptoms in specific situations — like eating in front of people or talking in front of large groups — while another might have more general social anxiety, experiencing symptoms in most social situations.

5. MYTH: You can always tell someone has an anxiety disorder.

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Just like anxiety feels different to everyone who experiences it, it doesn't look one certain way, either. You might assume that you could spot someone who suffers from anxiety because they would appear, well, anxious or something, but that's just not the case, says Rego. Anyone — shy people, social people, calm-seeming people, worried messes — can have an anxiety disorder.

6. MYTH: Social anxiety is the same thing as being shy or introverted.

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The three things do seem to have a lot in common on the surface, having to do with some sort of ~social aversion~, but that's where the similarities end. "Introverted and shy are personality constructs," Regine Galanti, Ph.D., director of The Center for Anxiety in Brooklyn, told BuzzFeed Life. "Social anxiety is specific symptoms of anxiety in social situations."

So while introverts might value their time away from others and shy people might have a hard time talking to people they don't know, neither involve the excessive, persistent anxiety and discomfort that social phobia does.

7. MYTH: Anxiety disorders are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain.

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Your brain's chemical makeup is only part of it, says Galanti. Anxiety can arise from a combination of genetics, biology, environment, social experiences, and learned behaviors — and it's often hard to pinpoint which one. "We know that anxious parents tend to have more anxious children, for example, but if you're a child who's anxious and you grew up with anxious parents, how do you know if it's genetic or the way your anxious parents raised you?" says Galanti.

8. MYTH: You always need a reason to be anxious.

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Nope. "Anxiety disorders are, by definition, irrational," says Rego. Some people will definitely have specific things that make them anxious, but it's also 100% normal for anxiety to hit for no reason at all.

9. MYTH: Medication is the only way to treat anxiety

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According to Rego, medications can definitely be helpful for some people. But the belief that it's the only option comes from the misconception that anxiety is all in brain chemistry (which, like we said above, isn't true) and can therefore only be "fixed" by chemical intervention.

"Even if [anxiety] was in fact caused by some change in brain chemistry, the research has shown that other interventions, such as cognitive behavioral therapy or 'CBT' — a specialized form of talk therapy — have the power to change brain chemistry too," says Rego.

10. MYTH: Anxiety is all in your head.

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Technically, sure, anxiety is a disorder that stems from your brain — but it can have very physical symptoms that go beyond fear and dread. Stomach problems, dizziness, chills, increased heartbeat, chest pain, trouble breathing, headaches, muscle tension, and insomnia are all common parts of anxiety disorders.

11. MYTH: If you eat right, exercise, avoid caffeine, and live a healthy lifestyle, your anxiety will go away.

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All these things are good for your overall health and might even help ease some of the symptoms of your anxiety — but thinking they can do anything more than that implies that anxiety is the result of an unhealthy lifestyle, says Rego. And that's not true. "They are real disorders, no different than any medical disorder," he says. "So they can be influenced by lifestyle decisions but rarely cured by those decisions alone."

12. MYTH: Give your anxious loved ones nonstop reassurance to help them deal.

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Even if your heart is in the right place, reassurance probably won't do much to ease an anxious person's mind, according to Galanti. "Often, what people do when people are worried about something is tell them, 'Don't worry, that's not going to happen,' but the truth is, you don't really know that," she says. "You can't promise that, so it doesn't help."

What anxious people actually need, she says, is to accept that yes, there's a possibility that the thing they're worried about can happen and they have to be able to live their life anyway. So the best thing you can do if you want to help is not downplay or invalidate their worries.

13. MYTH: Anxiety problems stem from issues you had in childhood.

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Again, environment might be one part of a bigger puzzle, but you shouldn't assume that if someone has an anxiety disorder, it's because of things that happened to them when they were a kid. Someone can grow up in a stressful environment and not have any issues with anxiety, says Galanti, just like someone can have a positive childhood and still develop an anxiety disorder.

14. MYTH: Anxiety isn't that common.

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Actually, anxiety is the most common mental illness in the United States, according to Rego. As many as one in five adults will suffer from an anxiety disorder in their lifetime.

15. MYTH: You should always carry a paper bag in case you hyperventilate.

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Doing that might make you feel safe, but in reality, it does nothing. The anticipation of having and needing the bag actually maintains your anxiety, says Galanti, because you pretty much wind up getting anxious about the possibility of getting anxious. Which is good for no one. "You have to get rid of those safety signals to see, OK, you can handle this. Because you can," she says.

16. MYTH: People with anxiety are mentally weak and just can't handle their shit as well as other people.

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This is pretty much the equivalent of thinking someone who broke their arm should be able to heal it on their own, says Galanti. Just, no.

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