Mental health is still a topic that many people don't know much about, which means people are often in the dark when it comes to managing their wellbeing. Issues such as anxiety tend to be misunderstood, and there are a number of misconceptions about anxiety that therapists hear often. Because so many people don't know where to turn when they are going through a mental health struggle, they often fill in the blanks themselves, or they just rely on hearsay, which might not always be true.
"Because anxiety disorders are more prevalent in women than men, it makes sense that the misunderstandings about anxiety affect women more than men," clinical psychologist Crystal I. Lee, Psy.D., tells Bustle. "And with the internet, myths can now spread and perpetuate to the point where it's very difficult to dispel them. There's also interesting societal factors that come into play, with the history of 'hysterical' women, from the era of Freud, and intense pressures for women to be a certain way."
If you're unsure about how to manage your anxiety, you're not alone. Thankfully, clearing up these misconceptions can help make a difference in combatting your anxiety. Here are 11 common misconceptions about women and anxiety that therapists hear the most.
1. Women Are Just More Sensitive
When women are anxious, they are often dismissed as being too sensitive or emotional, but this is untrue. "The idea that anxiety is simply explained by a woman's hypersensitivity is a myth that is should have died by now," psychotherapist Laura Federico MS, LCSW, tells Bustle. "The stigma and shame associated with this overgeneralization diminishes a person's anxiety symptoms, leading to a silent suffering."
2. If You Get Better At Things In Your Life, Your Anxiety Will Go Away
"Women often feel that if only they were better mothers or daughters [...] meditated more, exercised more, or [did] any other various form of self improvement, then they would not be anxious," psychotherapist Rebecca Clegg, LPC, tells Bustle. "The truth is, we don’t know that any of that is true. Lifestyle does contribute to anxiety, but what fuels it more than any of those variables is the tremendous pressure I see women place on themselves to be super human." And that pressure, in turn, can feed anxiety even more.
3. Anxiety Is A "Bad" Or "Wrong" Reaction
Many women are ashamed of their anxiety and see it as a "wrong" reaction to whatever is going on in their life, but it is often just a response to the stressors of taking care of themselves and others. "Women have a long history of taking care of everyone but themselves," says Clegg. "Much of how women have historically been trained to master being 'feminine' is centered around developing their nurturing and care-taking skills. Anxiety as a response to not having time to focus on our own needs and wants may be a warning sign that is trying to communicate to us rather than a symptom to be pathologized."
4. Anxiety Is Always A Chemical Imbalance
The chemical imbalance theory for anxiety and depression is often referenced, but in reality, it doesn't capture the true complexities of these disorders, and it is not always the case for everyone. "Anxiety is often a response to feeling helpless, and when looking at women and their experience with anxiety, we cannot overlook the cultural implications of oppression," says Clegg. "For centuries, women have been placed in a societal role that was under-recognized, disempowered, and denied access to autonomy. When a human being is not able to protect themselves, when they are placed in a scenario where they can not get their needs met and set boundaries necessary to feel safe, anxiety is an appropriate response."
5. Your Anxiety Is Just Neuroses
Many people also just view their anxiety as a neuroses and part of being a perfectionist. But anxiety doesn't have to be a permanent part of your desire to get things right. "The expectation that women manage multiple roles fosters an environment in which a woman is seen as multitasking and neurotic," says Federico. "This perpetuates the idea that women will manage this additional emotional labor, and further demeans any anxiety experience she may be having."
6. Your Anxiety Is Part Of Your Personality & Can't Be Treated
Anxiety is treatable, and those who suffer from it aren't just "anxious people" doomed to suffer. "Because women I work with have been anxious for so long and have tried so many things to help their anxiety, by the time they enter therapy, it's frequently the case that they feel hopeless about getting better," licensed clinical psychologist Jennifer Sweeton, Psy.D., M.S., M.A., tells Bustle. "Many women also attribute their anxiety to their personality, leading them to believe it can't ever get better. However, anxiety disorders are very treatable, and clients can learn skills to better manage anxiety when it arises."
7. You Can Get Rid Of Anxiety With Just Positive Thoughts
"Although many approaches to anxiety treatment emphasize cognitive restructuring and the management of distressing thoughts, changing your thoughts may not as simple as 'thinking positive,'" says Dr. Sweeton. "In fact, most women who suffer from anxiety have worked hard to 'just be positive,' sometimes for years before entering therapy. The pressure to be positive can be a source of anxiety in and of itself, as it can create an impossible expectation for women." Although anxiety treatment may include exercises such as repeating affirmations or focusing on the positive aspects of life, it also leaves space for working through negative thoughts and feelings, and it usually also emphasizes behavioral change.
8. You Just Need A Pill To Calm Down
Although medication can be useful for some people, it's not always the only option. "I often hear clients say that the people in their lives tell them to 'just take a pill to calm down,'" says Dr. Sweeton. "However, although some clients benefit from medications such as SSRIs, it is often the case that therapy alone can be very beneficial for anxiety disorders. Moreover, medication without therapy is less likely to be helpful than the combination of therapy plus medication or, for many clients, therapy alone."
9. Avoiding What Makes You Anxious Will Make Your Anxiety Go Away
Unfortunately, curing your anxiety is not as simple as just avoiding your stressors. "Just about everyone I see who suffers from anxiety tries to avoid anxiety-provoking situations in order to feel less anxious," says Dr. Sweeton. "The result, however, is that their anxiety intensifies over time instead of improving." There is usually a feeling of short-term relief when a situation is avoided, and this sense of temporary relief reinforces the idea that the anxiety-provoking situation might have been dangerous. This can lead to more avoidance and anxiety over time, which doesn't solve the problem.
10. You Shouldn't Feel Anxious If You Have Friends & Go Out
You might be questioning why you experience anxiety when your life seems objectively good and you have a vibrant social life. But anxiety looks different in everyone, and there's not just one way that anxiety manifests. "People often envision an anxious person as someone who avoids life and isolates," says Dr. Lee. "That may be true of some people, but there are also anxious people who are extroverted and highly sociable."
11. Getting Rid Of Anxiety Completely Will Finally Make You Happy
It's tempting to think that if only you could get rid of you anxiety once and for all, you would be happy. "Anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling, so it's understandable that you'd want to live a life without it," says Dr. Lee. "However, anxiety is an essential emotion that actually serves a purpose in your life. It prompts you to pay close attention and prepare yourself. Without it, you'd find yourself in dangerous situations or never preparing for your big work presentation. So, some anxiety is a good thing." Although you can definitely diminish your anxiety to help you live a more comfortable life, there will always be times when anxiety arises — it's how you manage it that matters.
Anxiety can be hard to navigate alone, which can leads to mistakes and misinformation. Reaching out to a professional can help give you the information you need.