Five Common Myths about Anxiety Dispelled

By Becca Brodoff, PsyD.

  1. Panic attacks are dangerous.

If you have ever experienced a panic attack, you know that the symptoms of panic are real and intense. Some people have a whole-body reaction, with physical changes like choking sensations, dizziness, sweating, urgency to use the bathroom and a racing heart. Many people rush to the hospital the first time they have a panic attack, convinced they’re dying or going crazy. Although panic attacks are uncomfortable, they are NOT harmful. Actually, panic attack symptoms demonstrate that your body is functioning properly. This probably seems absurd, but it’s not. When your body starts to panic it is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do when it perceives danger – your body’s “fight or flight” response is activated to keep you safe. The only problem is that panic attacks usually occur when there is nothing truly dangerous. So, the next time your body begins to misfire, just accept the panic and allow the misfiring to happen, barely giving the symptoms any credence. The more we can accept panic without labeling it as dangerous, the more tolerable the sensations become and the quicker it will end.

  1. Having a full-fledged anxiety disorder is rare.

An “Anxiety Disorder” involves clinical levels of anxiety which cause “significant distress and/or impairment” such that professional treatment is warranted. Many people feel like an outsider after being diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, but in fact, such diagnoses are extremely common. According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorders with nearly one in five (19.1%) of American adults meeting criteria in every given year. That’s more than 40,000,000 people! Does that seem rare to you??

  1. Avoiding stress and stressful situations is necessary to feel better.

Avoiding what makes us nervous is a common response to fear and anxiety. It makes intuitive sense to want to avoid the very situations that send us into a panic since the very act of avoiding helps us feel calm for the time being. Although escaping what you fear works to keep anxiety at bay in the short run, the more we avoid what we fear, the stronger and more long-lasting this fear will become. How does this work? It’s simple. When we avoid, we never get a chance to disprove our anxious predictions. For example, if we’re afraid that we’re too awkward to make a good impression and avoid social situations, we never learn that we have more social skills than we think. Or if we’re terrified of passing out in an elevator due to fear and we always take the stairs, we never learn that we can tolerate high levels of anxiety without fainting. In a nutshell: The best way to get cope with your anxiety is to lean into fear, not avoid it.

  1. I’m weak and incompetent for being anxious.

Many people feel that something’s inherently wrong with them for feeling anxious. Not only is this just flat out wrong, it’s also cruel. Anxiety is a natural part of being human. In fact, it’s an emotion that we need to protect and motivate ourselves. While intense anxiety can be uncomfortable and interfere with daily functioning, too little anxiety is even worse! Anxiety, among other things, motivates us to study for exams, prepare for big interviews, and otherwise push beyond our limits. So, telling yourself that you’re weak, stupid, or incompetent for being anxious is just a lie. And by the way, it won’t do you any good to berate yourself when you feel anxious, in fact usually it only discourages people further. When we feel anxious it’s our body’s way of saying “I need support” so compounding stress with guilt and shame just makes things worse. Many people believe that putting themselves down will give them motivation to overcome anxiety. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. A better approach is to treat yourself like you would treat a good friend—with empathy and care. Try to understand, and be curious about why you’re feeling anxious. This understanding will go a long way in helping you devise a plan of action and overcome anxiety in the long run.

  1. The only way to beat anxiety is with medication.

While medication can be helpful for anxiety especially in the short term, it is not the only way to see results. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a form of psychotherapy and is the gold standard for anxiety disorder treatment. CBT works by helping people identify their worries, see things in more helpful and realistic ways, and confront anxiety-provoking situations head-on. At times, medication can be an important component of treatment, such as when anxiety prevents someone from engaging in CBT. So, taking medication may be an important first step. But, in the long-run taking medication can actually reinforce the idea that anxiety is bad or harmful, and interfere with the processes of learning to overcome our fears.

Tips to Managing Stress and Anxiety Over the Holiday Season

By Hudi Kowalsky, LMHC

For many people, the Holiday season comes with mixed emotions.

Some of the pro’s include crisp winter mornings, holiday cheer, great retail sales, and festive spirit all around.

But the holidays can also create considerable tension, stress, and anxiety. First, holidays often come with a break from routine which can be disruptive and complicated to navigate. And for those who need to travel things can be even more complicated, and expensive. Second, there is family stress. While spending time with loved ones can be a great blessing, complicated dynamics often play out especially during the holiday season. And for some individuals spending time with family members can trigger unwanted memories, as well as habits which no longer serve us well. Third, is the vice of social comparison: Looking at images all over of other “happy” people can leave many wondering why they are feeling so sad, anxious, and alone. And for those who don’t have families to share the holidays with, such feelings can be even more compounded. It’s very easy to look around and see what others appear to have and be quick to judge ourselves harshly and curse our fate.

What are some tools that we can utilize to have a happy and NOT anxious holiday season? How can we maintain a sense of equilibrium and peace from late November through the start of January? To rephrase that question in the language of clinical science: What are the most effective ways to manage our emotions and increased vulnerability to anxiety during this season?

Here are our seven favorite ideas:

  • Keep up a healthy and regular routine as possible. If you need to travel or attend a family gathering or holiday party, try not to wake up or go to bed more than 60-90 minutes later than usual. The body has its own rhythm that needs to be maintained.
  • When you need a break from work, really take a break and let things wait until you’re back at work.
  • Keep up your fitness and try to stick to your regular diet/calorie intake as much as possible. If you miss a workout or overeat a bit here and there, just try to get back on track.
  • A drink here or there with friends and family is usually fine, unless your doctor has told you otherwise. But if you’re feeling sad or anxious be sure to go easy and not overdo it. Drowning away sorrows tends to bring them back with a vengeance down the road.
  • When you’re spending time with family that you care about, turn off your cell phone for at least part of the time together. When we’re not distracted by our phones a new world of curiosity and possibilities in relationships opens up.
  • If you’re in therapy, ask your therapist if you can contact him/her while you’re away as needed during the holiday season when things come up. And if you’re taking medication, make sure you have an adequate supply so you’re not running to a random pharmacy for a refill mid-Thanksgiving meal.
  • If you’re not in therapy, make sure you have a close friend you can call or lean on if things get tough. Sometimes, there is no greater medicine than having a shoulder to cry on.

Happy Holidays (seriously)!

Test and Exam Anxiety

By Mark Staum, LCSW

The months of October and November bring new weather patterns, new daylight schedules and new challenges for children. Exams, projects, and papers are back in full swing. Some children may experience some level of anxiety, in preparation for an exam or during an exam. Test Anxiety is a form of anxiety that can be anticipatory and/or performance related. In anticipatory test anxiety, a child may be anxious about the preparation necessary for an exam. When performance related, a child may experience anxiety during the exam itself.

Research shows that test anxiety is related strongly to time management and preparation. Even the most prepared/organized child may have some normal ‘jitters’ on the day of a big exam. However, generally speaking, children who prepare, plan ahead and studies for exams tend to feel more capable of handling any stressors that may arise on the day of the exam. By contrast, children who attempt to cram the night before tend to be more anxious. With that said, some children who study and know their material very well still get very anxious. Also, children with anticipatory exam anxiety may push off studying because doing so makes them think about their exams, which is unpleasant and anxiety-inducing, and as a result, they are less prepared, which begets even more anxiety.

To help children manage test and exam anxiety, teachers and parents should pay careful attention to children’s behaviors. Let’s look at three examples:

  1. A child tells you that before a Math exam, her body became ‘frozen’ and it felt like she was confused and disoriented.
  2. A child says that he reviewed the material for his History test an extra five times because he felt nervous that he really didn’t know the material well.
  3. A child mentions that before her most recent Science exam, she was so nervous that she could not study, and then during the exam, she felt very tired and had difficulty concentrating.

In all these cases, adults can assist children in navigating through these discomforts. In example #1, the child can take a practice test in advance of the exam, and then use breathing, relaxation, and light muscle exercises to relax the body directly prior to and during the exam. In example #2, we can help the child to recognize why it is that he is concerned about not doing well, and to be more accepting that sometimes we try our best and still don’t achieve what we want. In example #3, we can reinforce good study habits, especially when the child prepares for her test despite her anticipatory anxiety.

In all of these cases, feeling of anxiety can be worked through to build resilience and growth in your child. The above are sample strategies and professional assistance may be necessary. Typically, test and exam anxiety is highly treatable with evidence-based psychotherapy such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and children can see benefits within just four to six weeks.