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Common Misconceptions About… Generalised Anxiety Disorder

Common Misconceptions About… Generalised Anxiety Disorder

“Just breathe!” “Worrying won’t fix it!”

If these phrases make you want to yell, you’re not alone. For as long as humans have been alive, they’ve been anxious - but there’s still a way to go when it comes to fully understanding what anxiety means on an individual scale. People are generally more willing to learn in recent years, as openness surrounding mental health becomes more widespread, but there are still several myths that have made their way into general belief and refuse to budge. 

Challenging these misunderstandings is crucial - if you consistently feel anxious, you might feel like those around you don’t understand you or see you differently from how you really are. You might even believe some of these myths yourself:

You have to have panic attacks

When you think of GAD, you may have a specific image of what that means in your head. However, everyone has an individual experience and you may have it even if you don’t meet the stereotypical signs.

It’s not a requirement to have had panic attacks (regularly or ever) to be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Your symptoms may dictate whether you’re suffering from GAD or something else like social anxiety disorder (social phobia) or panic disorder.

Panic attacks and anxiety attacks are slightly different. Anxiety attacks come on after a period of worry and gradually intensify over minutes or hours. They tend to present more inwardly than panic attacks, but are no less frightening: you may find yourself zoning out, unable to talk or make simple decisions, or feel like you’re going to pass out. 

Panic attacks have no distinct trigger and appear without warning: they may be what you think of when you imagine someone “suffering from anxiety”. Symptoms can range from the more stereotypical shortness of breath and dizziness to tightness in the chest and throat, chills and/or hot flashes, or an irritable stomach. 

Attacks like these can be debilitating, especially if they happen frequently, but they’re not the only indicator of an anxiety-related condition. GAD is defined by “significant”, “uncontrollable”, “prolonged” worrying and nothing else. 

You’re just shy

They might be easy to confuse in social settings, but shyness and generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) are by no means the same thing. Both involve fear of negative judgement. Anxiety, however, extends outside of the worrying event and may occur over things that are less of an immediate threat. 

A shy person might have a sleepless night before an upcoming presentation: someone with GAD may have an anxiety attack weeks before. GAD can present as a non-specific feeling of dread, whereas a shy person with no underlying mental health conditions likely won’t feel afraid until they have to think about or face a situation. GAD is not limited to social situations, and even the most socially confident people can suffer. 

Generalised anxiety disorder might also include unlikely thoughts or expand into whole scenarios: “What if my friends are secretly annoyed at me?”, or “What if I get lost on my way to an event? What if I end up being late? What if I get in trouble? What if the food there makes me ill? What if I don’t know where the toilet is…?”, etc. 

Most people have thoughts like this in passing, but if you find yourself rehearsing scripts and preparing yourself for every possible outcome in a way that distresses you, it might be time to consider whether your “shyness” is something more. 

“Relaxing” will solve it

Another common tell of generalised anxiety disorder is the inability to switch the anxiety off. Typically, when someone has nothing stressful on their mind, they are able to have fun and stay calm. Those living with GAD might find it difficult to wind down without worries popping in - and if they’ve suffered since they were young, they might consciously or unconsciously not know how to relax at all.

Well-meaning advice, like taking a bath or watching a favourite TV show, may not alleviate the fears of someone with GAD, or may just redirect them to something else. Sufferers often report trouble spending time with loved ones, sleeping, or focusing on things they enjoy even when there is not a direct cause of concern. Some overwork to compensate; others may procrastinate to avoid daunting tasks. 

Taking specific “work” and “play” time is still important, whether it feels effective or not. Consider implementing a routine, may that be set hours in the office, a weekly workout with a friend, or carving out a few hours each week to be alone. It’s easier to maintain boundaries and avoid slipping into harmful habits later down the line - but, equally, a little spontaneity is healthy too. 

You’ll grow out of it

Anxiety-related conditions tend to spike in the teen years, but that doesn’t mean it’s a “young person’s problem”. Increased responsibility and pressures, greater awareness of the self and relationships, and a painful cocktail of hormones: it’s no wonder 1 in 3 teenagers meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder or depression. 

This doesn’t mean that warning signs in children and young people should be dismissed as normal, however. In fact, it’s all the more important to spot signs early.  Nor does it mean that, if you’re older, you should resort to slipping under the radar. 

It might seem easier for adults with GAD to shift their attention to other responsibilities, like work or children, rather than tackling their emotions head-on. Generational beliefs might also play a part. 

If you had a physical, visible illness, you wouldn’t expect it just to disappear over time - and anxiety is the same. It is not a weakness at any age, and nobody is “past help”. It’s much more common in adults than you may think; it’s just not talked about enough. 

Growing up can bring confidence in some ways, but it’s not a cure for underlying mental health conditions. The only way to really tackle things is to seek help. Anxiety UK and Mind are two of the biggest UK charities for those living with anxiety or similar mental health conditions; they offer local support groups to meet similar people your age or can be contacted anonymously at any time for free on 03444 775 774 (Anxiety UK) or 0300 123 3393 (Mind).

These numbers are designed to offer you services or practical help, but there are also free, 24/7 confidential talking services like Samaritans or the text line SHOUT if you just need to get things off your chest. 

Hopefully, this has challenged your own thoughts about GAD or can be shown to friends or relatives who don’t quite seem to “get” you. Sometimes it’s the smallest comments that come from misinformation that hurt the most - so let’s do all we can to break down barriers. 

Don’t feel afraid to seek the services mentioned or other professional help if needed. Contact your GP for the next steps or, if you’re worried about your immediate health, call NHS Direct on 111.