Anxiety myths busted

This post is part of the series Anxiety

Other posts in this series:

  1. The rawness of panic attacks
  2. Anxiety myths busted (Current)

Anxiety is a cluster of psychological and physical symptoms. The psychological symptoms include feelings of dread, fear and being overwhelmed. Patients having a panic attack tell me it feels like they are going to die or go insane. Physical symptoms manifest all over the body: racing pulse, sweating, blushing, irritable bowel, irritable bladder, shaking and muscle tension.

Anxiety is normal. It makes us look both ways when crossing the street. It becomes abnormal when the sufferer starts worrying and dreading everyday situations.It can start making it difficult to work, attend school or socialise. When it starts making someone’s world small, stops them living their best life or makes them physically sick with illnesses like hypertension, ulcers or irritable bowel syndrome, then it is known as an anxiety disorder.

Myths around anxiety disorder are rampant and can make proper treatment difficult to get. Some of the myths I’ve encountered in my practice:

  • Myth 1: Anxious people are just nervous wussies

The harshest critics are often the sufferer themselves! In my book some anxious people are heroes. They get up every day and face situations which leave them dripping with cold sweat. Part of “exposure therapy”, a common treatment for phobias, involves progressive exposure to the worst fear. I will never bungee jump.  I have a moderate fear of heights which makes me go on my hands and knees when I am close to high edges.  I had a patient who could not go up a flight of stairs. She stuck to her therapy, and I listened with awe as she told me of her skydiving victory.

It is not just nervous people who suffer from anxiety disorders. Up to a third of us suffer from these disorders in our lifetime, making it the most prevalent mental illness. Even the most robust of us can find ourselves on our knees with the right stressor.

  • Myth 2: Tranquillisers and sleeping pills are the treatment of choice

Doctors often prescribe sleeping pills or tranquillisers to help someone through an anxious patch. The truth is, these pills can help manage symptoms in the short term. The big problem is that they do nothing to treat the underlying cause. So the actual anxiety continues unaddressed. It’s like a plaster to make the wound less sensitive, but the infection is not cleaned out. Long-term use of sleeping pills and tranquillisers makes the problem much worse. In addition to anxiety, the sufferer now sits with an addiction problem and rebound anxiety caused by withdrawal from the pills.

Medication can assist with anxiety disorders. The most common and effective are SSRI’s (serotonin reuptake inhibitors), but your doctor might recommend another antidepressant or a Beta Blocker. It is best to be properly assessed if you are struggling. Take this anxiety test for an indication of whether you need more help

  • Myth 3: Anxiety is bad for you

Anxiety, especially chronic anxiety, is bad for you. It can lead to an increased risk of illnesses such as depression, alcohol abuse, hypertension, angina, bruxism (jaw grinding) and irritable bowel syndrome to name a few. Anxiety can make it difficult to concentrate, focus, eat or sleep. Struggling with anxiety can derail a person’s life trajectory. Kids don’t make friends and avoid school. Teenagers don’t speak up in class and start abusing alcohol to socialise. Adults don’t pursue their dream jobs or stay too long in bad relationships. That is why it is very important to get the help you need to overcome this demon.

But anxiety is also normal; it can even be good for us. It happens whenever we are pushed beyond our comfort zone. Research has shown that if we visualise our bodies getting ready to respond 120% to a stressful situation, then we can experience the stressor as a challenge. Our hearts are beating strongly; our lungs are drawing in more air, blood flow is being rerouted from our gut to where it is needed. We can use unpleasant sensations as cues that our bodies are getting ready to ace this thing. It can help us stand up in front of a crowd and say what needs to be said. It can help us push through the night to finish the assignment.

  • Myth 4: Anxious people must just calm down or breathe

This is singularly useless advice to give someone having a panic attack. If they could calm down or breathe, they most certainly would have. Similarly, someone shoving a paper bag in their face, or gripping them in an unsolicited bear hug, could feel overwhelming.

Obviously, you want to help someone you care about in distress, so what do you do? The first thing to do is to calm yourself. Too much emotion can trigger your own anxiety, feelings of helplessness or anger. Then ask them: “What can I do to help?”, “Is there something I can get you?”.

Severe anxiety needs to be assessed and managed. With a combination of medication, therapy and lifestyle, I have seen many patients not only manage, but thrive.


  1. Thank you for your interesting post. It prompted me to discuss breathing exercises with our group on WhatsApp today. It turns out that those in our group who have been diagnosed co-morbid anxious have all been prescribed breathing exercises by either a physiotherapist, psychologist or psychiatrist. SADAG meanwhile wanted me to persuade my brother to do them when I tried to get him some help with his anxiety. Is your myth 4 above only about panic attacks or do breathing exercises have little or no benefit during the normal course of anxiety? I know they are not going to cure the condition but might they not be palliative, even if at the placebo level?

    • Hi David. Breathing can be most useful in anxiety. Much of the symptoms of anxiety are triggered by an imbalance of sympathetic and parasympathetic systems. Breathing can help stabilise these imbalances, providing the patient isn’t hyperventilating. The way to do this is by holding it on the in: deep breathe in, hold it, slow release out. Repeat. If you breathe properly before a panic attack, you can sidestep a full episode. It is useful to try it during an episode, although you probably won’t succeed and someone telling you to breathe won’t help. Hope that clears things up.:)

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