21 Things No One Ever Tells You About Anxiety
There's no need to sugarcoat it: Dealing with an anxiety disorder can be downright confusing, whether you were recently diagnosed with one, or you've been living with it for a long time. Even as someone who has lived with generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for most of my life, I still find myself scouring Google with questions about my mental health disorders, coping skills, and new symptoms that seem to crop up. While most people could give you a cookie-cutter definition of anxiety, there's a lot of things no one ever tells you about anxiety.
"Anxiety disorders have the highest prevalence of any mental health disorder in the U.S., impacting nearly 20% of adults each year," Sarah Greenberg, the lead coach and program design lead at BetterUp, tells Bustle. While anxiety is common, there are so many ways it can manifest — and it could take a while to learn the ins and outs of how to best manage your mental illness.
Knowing your diagnosis can be empowering, but that is often just the first step in a long journey that involves learning how to live with a chronic mental health issue. These are 21 things you should know about anxiety that nobody ever told you, according to experts.
1. Being Anxious Is Not A Choice
When you're first diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, there will undoubtedly be some well-intended person in your life who insists "happiness is a choice." Sigh. Greenberg says, "experts agree that the cause [of anxiety disorder] is truly a combination of nature (genetics) and nurture (lived experience)." As Medical News Today reported, a 2012 study conducted by researchers at John Hopkins Children's Center found that, unsurprisingly, children with anxious parents were more anxious themselves.
So, next time someone tells you anxiety is a "choice," you can hit them with these facts!
2. Everyone's Experience With Anxiety Is Unique
Though anxiety is the most common mental health condition, every single person's experience with anxiety is unique. "There are so many interrelated factors that influence your experience, and thus your path forward," Greenberg says. "I am wary of any 'one-size-fits-all' treatment approach, and instead favor an approach that takes into account both the decades of important research from social science, as well as the nuances that make each person’s journey unique."
3. Anxiety Is Highly Treatable
When you're first diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, it's more than okay to feel afraid, overwhelmed, or unsure of what the next steps forward will look like. Fortunately, Dr. Scott Symington, a licensed clinical psychologist, and author of Freedom from Anxious Thoughts and Feelings: A Two-Step Mindfulness Approach for Moving Beyond Fear and Worry, says anxiety is "one of the most treatable mental health conditions," and that there are "an array of evidenced-based treatments that are highly effective in alleviating debilitating anxiety." With the right team of mental health professionals, it's more than possible to manage your anxiety.
4. You Can Search For Therapists Until You Find The Right One
Finding a therapist you connect with can be a huge step towards healing when you're living with an anxiety disorder. Greenberg says, "When it comes to choosing a therapist, too often people feel obligated to keep working with the first practitioner they meet. If it feels like a good fit, great! If not, it’s important to know it’s okay to keep shopping around." Not sure if you and your new therapist vibe? Here are some steps you can take to ensure they are the right counselor for you.
5. But Talk Therapy Isn't The Right Approach For Everyone With Anxiety
There's no question that seeing a therapist on a regular basis can make your anxiety much more manageable. However, traditional talk therapy might not be the right approach for everyone. If you find your sessions aren't as productive as you'd like, you can ask your therapist if it would be helpful try a treatment a touch on the creative side, such as art therapy, movement therapy, or music therapy. "Treatment works, but it’s not a simple path," says Amy Cirbus, a licensed therapist at Talkspace.
6. Complementary Therapies Can Help
Mind-body therapies — such as yoga, tai chi, meditation, acupuncture, or massage — can help reduce anxiety. According to the National Institutes of Health, research suggests these practices may help lessen stress, improve coping strategies, alleviate pain and fatigue, and boost overall wellness. What's more, a 2016 review of studies found mind-body therapies greatly improved mental and physical health symptoms specifically among marginalized communities. Though mind-body practices don't replace traditional therapy, they are often effective when used as a complementary therapy.
7. Being Nervous Is Not The Same Thing As Being Anxious
Feeling nervous or worried are totally normal responses to stress, but anxiety is a mental health disorder that can be debilitating. While some people may minimize your anxiety by comparing it to simply being nervous, try to surround yourself with people who understand that anxiety is a serious health issue.
8. You're Not Alone In Your Struggles
"We don't talk about [anxiety] enough," Cirbus says. "It's so common, and yet, often goes undisclosed and undiscussed." Being able to find a trusted friend to openly discuss your anxiety with can make a huge difference when you're struggling. If you feel like you can't talk to a friend or loved one, there is no shame calling or texting a hotline if you feel you just need to reach mental health professional or trained crisis counselor.
9. There Are Many Different Symptoms Of Anxiety Disorders
According to Medical News Today, people with anxiety disorders may experience uncontrollable worry, feelings of restlessness, intense fear, and racing or intrusive thoughts. But anxiety can also manifest as physical symptoms. Cirbus says that anxiety can cause some people to have chronic headaches, and body aches. Moreover, doctors have reported memory problems, heart palpitations, dry mouth, tooth pain, diarrhea, and even weakened immune systems are common among patients with anxiety disorders.
People with panic disorder may experience even more severe physical symptoms. There have been a number of reports of folks confusing panic attacks with hearts attacks. As a 2016 study revealed, over 1.2 million emergency room visits in the U.S. between 2009 and 2011 were anxiety-related. So, the ways anxiety can impact physical health should not be taken lightly.
10. Anxiety Disorders Are Linked To Other Common Health Conditions
According to Greenberg, "Anxiety disorders often co-occur with other challenges such as depression, significant life stressors, or insomnia." In fact, the ADAA reported research has indicated close to half of people diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with anxiety. Research has found sleep disorders have been linked to anxiety, and anxiety disorders can have negative impact on digestion.
11. Anxiety Can Look Like Anger
While you might typically think of an anxious person as looking fearful — shaking, crying, or sweating — that's not always the case. It's not unusual for someone experiencing anxiety to lash out, or to seem irritable, rather than worried. "[Anger] is rooted in fear, and fear is just another word for anxiety," therapist Kayce Hodos, LPC, told Bustle in 2017. "When we feel threatened, we react with our natural stress response — fight or flight. Those of us who end up fighting often get angry when things don’t go our way. To figure out how to manage your anger, you need to be able to name your fear and learn to take control of what’s lying beneath: anxiety."
12. Your Work Environment May Impact Your Anxiety
Greenberg explains that your workplace environment can greatly impact your mental health when you have an anxiety disorder. In fact, as the American Psychiatric Association (APA) reported, "anxiety disorders lead to an average of 4.6 work days lost to disability per month, and 18.1 work days lost to disability per three months." It's 100% up to employers to make workplaces accessible for people with mental illness and other disabilities, but doing things like learning new skills to manage your anxiety disorder at work and prioritizing work-life balance may help you cope with your anxiety.
13. You May Need Medication
As the ADAA reported, a 2013 survey revealed that 1 in 6 people in the U.S. take a psychiatric medication. While antidepressants and other psychiatric medications are not right for everyone, your physician or psychiatrist may recommend taking medication to help manage your anxiety disorder.
"It takes the vigilance of finding the right (and affordable) doctor, then the right medication for you, [and] then the right dosage of that medication," she explains. "For most people, it’s the combination of medication, and counseling together that provides the best results."
14. Ignoring Your Anxiety Won't Make It Go Away
Hyper-focusing on your anxiety or intrusive thoughts can be harmful, but trying to avoid your anxiety altogether can also be unhelpful. "Avoiding sources of fear and anxiety is natural, but it invites more anxiety into your life. It reinforces the threat status of whatever is being avoided," explains Symington.
"Heightened self-consciousness or hyper-vigilance of one's environment can be a negative symptom," Greenberg says. "But, harnessing that awareness, and applying it strategically, can actually be a real asset," she says.
15. Your Brain Is Teachable
Anxiety may feel all-consuming sometimes, but Symington says with the right therapist and skills, you can retrain your brain to relax when you begin to feel anxious, or feel a panic attack coming on. (Yes, our brains are that cool!) "The fear response (fight or flight) can show up in spaces where it doesn’t belong, such as driving over bridges, or going to the dentist. When this happens, you have the ability to teach your brain that the perceived threat is not dangerous," explains Symington. "While driving over the feared bridge, for example, you would relax your grip on the steering wheel, take deep breaths, and place your attention on the radio, or some other external stimuli. [...] As you do this, the anxiety gradually dissipates."
16. Anxiety Can Affect Your Relationships
Having an anxiety disorder can impact every aspect of your life, including your relationships — both platonic and romantic. Alana Barlia, LMHC, recently told Bustle, "Anxiety can cause strain on a relationship, and often will if it is not treated properly." However, she says that learning to communicate with your partner about your mental health concerns and needs is key. It's important to remember that while anxiety may present unique challenges in a relationship (which every relationship has, BTW!), that doesn't make you unlovable or undateable.
16. You Cannot Always Control Or Predict Your Anxiety
There may be times your anxiety seems to flare up out of nowhere — even when you have a strong support system, a routine in place, and coping skills. Cirbus says that while it's typical to feel a little fearful or hopeless when this happens, "staying the course does work." Meaning, it's important to keep seeing your therapist, practicing the coping skills you've learned, and for some, taking prescribed medication.
Cirbus explains that, like with any chronic illness, living with an anxiety disorder takes a lot of effort and patience. Being aware of your anxiety triggers may help you manage your symptoms better. But accepting that you will have bad mental health days from time to time, and that your anxiety will not always be predictable, can making living with it easier.
17. Learning About Your Anxiety Disorder Can Help
It may be overwhelming, but taking small steps towards learning about your mental health condition may help you feel more empowered to seek help, try new coping skills, and make small strides towards recovery. "When you’re first diagnosed with anxiety, it can feel extremely vulnerable, and frightening to claim this diagnosis as your own, [but] gathering information helps," Cirbus says. This may simply mean just consistently seeing your therapist, picking up a book about mental health, or reading about what has worked for others with anxiety disorders.
18. Tracking Your Symptoms Can Help You Be More Aware Of Your Anxiety
On a similar note, gathering information about your unique anxiety triggers and symptoms can help you better manage your mental illness over time. "It’s important to track symptoms closely over a period of time. Doing so, without judgment, will help you recognize and interrupt unhelpful patterns," says Greenberg. "Practicing self-awareness in this way can make what once felt impossible, well within reach." Downloading a mental health app is an easy way to start keeping track of how your anxiety impacts you on a regular basis.
19. Lifestyle Choices Can Impact Your Anxiety In Sneaky Ways
Your daily routine can have a huge impact on your overall mental and physical wellness — especially when you have an anxiety disorder. Skipping meals, scrolling on social media too often, staying up late, drinking too much coffee or caffeinated tea, and sitting at home all day are a few habits that can worsen your anxiety.
20. Exercising Truly Can Help With Anxiety
Exercise is not a cure for anxiety. However, it is one of my go-to coping skills for when I'm feeling super anxious — even if it's often the last thing I want to do when my thoughts are racing. Science has shown workouts can really boost your mood, so I put on my sneakers anyways. Even something as simple as going for a brisk, 20-minute walk releases endorphins — which, in turn, can quell some of the mental and physical symptoms associated with anxiety disorders.
21. Your Anxiety Can Be Used For Good
Yes, you read that right: There is such thing as good anxiety (aka, very small amounts of it), and this type of anxiety may actually boost your cognitive health, according to Psychology Today. "Anxiety is energy. Nervous, anxious energy can be used as an internal reminder — and energy source — to express the best parts of who you are," Symington says.
"Nobody wishes for anxiety," Greenberg says. "But, what some people find is that the work they do to recover from symptoms, such as adopting healthy habits, exploring thought patterns, or improving relationships, doesn’t just alleviate symptoms. It actually leads them to emerge from the journey stronger than ever." (Though not everyone's experience, as someone with chronic anxiety, this has been mine.)
Navigating an anxiety disorder can be tricky, and you'll probably always run into obstacles you've not faced before. However, the more you understand about your mental illness, the better you can be prepared to handle it in the future.
If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.