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Busting the myths about anxiety disorders

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Anxiety is the most common mental health condition in Australia, on average one in four people will experience the illness at some stage in their life. 

Yet a common myth is that anxiety disorders are rare.

Despite the prevalence there are many myths surrounding anxiety. These myths can create stigma and prevent help seeking. So it's important to know the facts.

Here are the most common myths about anxiety disorders, and the facts to counter them. 

Anxiety is not a real illness

 Some anxiety is natural, it can even be helpful. We might experience it before exams, presentations, or during job interviews. We might experience it when we try something new. It can also motivate us.

This natural anxiety is considered a disorder when it starts to cause impairment in everyday life. Not only can anxiety cause behavioural and psychological symptoms, it can produce physical symptoms. These include stomach problems, dizziness, chills, increased heartbeat, chest pain, trouble breathing, headaches, muscle tension, and insomnia.

The only way to treat anxiety is with medication

Although medications are commonly recommended for the treatment of anxiety, they only provide a temporary solution and do not address the cause of the issue.

Effective methods of treatment include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which is based around changing thinking, attitudes, behaviours and beliefs, and problem solving. Exposure therapy, a form of treatment that exposes someone to the feared object or context in a safe, simulated environment. And, anxiety management/relaxation techniques including visualisation, meditation, Mindfulness, support, counselling and breathing exercises. 

Real anxiety is having panic attacks

Panic attacks can be part of anxiety, but not always.

There are many anxiety disorders, including generalised anxiety disorder, social anxiety, Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). A person living with any of these disorders may or may not experience a panic attack.

Statistics show that about 35–50% of adults will experience at least one panic attack in their lifetime. But this does not mean they are living with an anxiety disorder. It's estimated that 6.8% of adults will experience panic attacks that are frequent enough to meet the criteria for panic disorder.

A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause. Panic attacks can be very frightening. When panic attacks occur, people often feel they are losing control, having a heart attack or even dying.

Conversely people with panic disorder have sudden and repeated panic attacks. If untreated, panic attacks can occur several times a week or even daily. Recurrent attacks may continue for several weeks to several years. During this time there may be periods of full or partial remission (no panic attacks or only mild attacks with few symptoms).

Social anxiety is the same as being shy

It can seem similar. However having social anxiety and being shy are very different.

Shyness and introversion are personality traits. People with these traits may have difficulty talking to people they don't know or value their time away from others. However they do not experience the excessive, persistent anxiety and discomfort associated with social anxiety.

In contrast social anxiety disorder is a mental illness affecting 3% of the population. People can experience a significant amount of fear, embarrassment or humiliation in social performance-based situations, to the point where the person avoids the situations entirely, or endures them with a high level of distress. While many people with social anxiety disorder are shy, shyness is not a pre-requisite for social anxiety disorder.

Being able to separate myth from reality is an important part of understanding mental illness, like anxiety. Knowledge helps break down stigma, which enables help seeking and tolerance.

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