4 Common Myths About Anxiety and Fear

By Dr. Rob Purssey

At Brisbane ACT Centre our expert psychologists, psychiatrists and other therapists use the latest effective mindfulness, values and action oriented strategies to help you better handle anxiety, so as to feel better, and live better, quickly. Many common beliefs about anxiety unfortunately undermine effective approaches – and many such myths are commonly held by health professionals. Let’s take a look at some of these myths, to help untangle them, and therefore help untangle you!  (With gratitude to Professors John P. Forsyth and Georg H. Eifert – see below)

Myth #1: Anxiety Problems Are Biological and Hereditary

“Anxiety runs in my family – it’s due to my genes”. While anxiety often runs in families, that’s more due to learned behaviour than genes. Sure, we inherit some genetic predisposition to anxiety, just like we inherit a tendency to be outgoing, introverted, intelligent, muscular or athletic. But genes are not destiny, in fact at most contribute 30 to 40%. Newest genetic research shows epigenetics turn genes on and off – great news, as there is always room to grow, change and live more freely, whatever your genes.

Myth #2: Intense Anxiety Is Abnormal

Intense anxiety does not equal an anxiety disorder. We all need capacity to feel intense emotions like anxiety and fear for our own survival. Many studies have shown that various behavioral processes impact quality of life more so than anxiety symptom severity – particularly one’s psychological flexibility, which is the ability to flexibly handle difficult thoughts and feelings. Many people experience intense anxiety, even panic attacks, in their daily lives and continue to do what’s important to them. Intensely felt emotions need not be a barrier to the life you want to lead. They can be welcomed in as a vital part of you – and paradoxically, over time, become less central.

Myth #3: Anxiety Is a Sign of Weakness

Anxiety isn’t a sign of weakness, personality defect, poor character, laziness, or lack of motivation. Anyone can get stuck and off track because of emotional or psychological pain. All human beings have pain. Having pain is built into the human condition. You may believe you’re less “strong” than others, as they seem so be doing so much better. This is a grand illusion – fuelled by two sources: firstly our mind’s tendency to make inferences on limited information, bolstered by the “myth of normal happiness”. Secondly the mind’s tendency to compare ourselves with others and find ourselves wanting – a useful habit in tribal prehistoric society, not so helpful today as we compare ourselves instantly with others all over the globe.

Myth #4: Anxiety Can and Must Be Managed to Live a Vital Life

Of all the myths, this one is the most damaging, and central to the culture of feel-goodism in modern Western culture. This anxiety myth sets up emotional and physical pain as barriers to a life lived well. The message is this: In order to live better, I must first think and feel better. And only once I start thinking and feeling better, my life will improve for the better. This is a trap. Indeed Russ Harris in his excellent ACT self-help book has called it “The Happiness Trap”. The more we strive to get rid of certain feelings, the stronger they often become. The more we try not to think certain thoughts, the stickier they get. Try this one out – whatever you do, over the next 30 seconds, don’t think of a pink elephant!… So how did that go? What if you could simply have that thought, and others? Simply have those uncomfortable feelings, and others? AND step forward into life doing the things you care about?

Where These Myths Can Take You

These myths feed anxiety and can keep you stuck and cut off from the life you want to lead. Like a sticky spider web, when you get caught up in the web, the natural reaction is to struggle – and the more you struggle, the more tangled up you become. You become an anxiety management expert, searching for that magic cure or new solution. The hard truth is you won’t find a cure for anxiety in a pill, an online support group, or even in some solid psychotherapies known for offering “new, better, different” strategies for getting control over your anxious thoughts and feelings.

Whenever your mind tells you otherwise, look at your experience. Have these and other options worked in the long run? Does your experience tell you that they will work if you work harder, longer, or better at them? Do you want to be about dealing with anxiety for the rest of your life? Haven’t you worked hard enough?

By breaking free of these disabling anxiety myths we discover some very good news – you can quickly learn the skills to more effectively handle your worries, anxieties and fears far more effectively, and to live far more freely and fully – and all this within a few sessions. Contact our expert anxiety flexibility experts at Brisbane ACT Centre today.

Acknowledgement

Much of the above wisdom comes from the masters of ACT for Anxiety – John P. Forsyth and Georg H. Eifert. See their wonderful new book, the 2nd edition of The Mindfulness and Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety: A Guide to Breaking Free from Anxiety, Phobias, and Worry Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy here. The first edition of this self-help book was shown in a randomised control trial to greatly benefit those who used it – even without a therapist! And Georg and John’s fantastic 2005 textbook “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Anxiety Disorders: A Practitioner’s Treatment Guide to Using Mindfulness, Acceptance, and Values-Based Behavior Change Strategies” directly helped inspire and shape me into becoming an ACT therapist way back in 2006. All my thanks, Rob Purssey

Dr. Rob Purssey

Dr. Rob Purssey

Psychiatrist, Director Brisbane ACT Centre

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