Hi, everyone. By the time you’re watching this I’ve got a new baby, so I’m not making videos for a bit. But one of my favorite psych writers, Nick Wignall, has generously offered to help me out.
Nick is a psychologist who specializes in anxiety, and basically every time I read one of his articles I learn something new. In this video he’s going to share seven anxiety myths that most people believe.
Before we jump in, I want to add one more myth that I’ve seen pretty frequently. So here goes. This is myth number eight, that distraction helps anxiety.
I was working with a client the other day who had a lot of anxiety, and the way she dealt with it was by distracting herself, watching a lot of TikTok, spending a lot of time on social media, watching Netflix. And it’s not just that she likes those things, but she actually believed that they help her anxiety.
Now, distraction feels better than anxiety feels, but distraction does nothing to address or resolve the anxiety; it just puts it on hold. But then the problems that may actually be causing anxiety, like work stress or poor boundaries or a lack of health skills or relationship problems or worried, chronic thinking patterns — these problems get worse when you’re distracting yourself. Distraction actually makes anxiety worse.
And Nick’s going to teach you how distracting and coping actually send your brain the message that anxiety itself is dangerous, which heightens anxiety over time. So there’s my myth.
Without further ado, here’s Nick Wignall and seven myths about anxiety.
Nick Wignall: 7 Myths About Anxiety
I’m a psychologist who specializes in anxiety, and the single biggest reason I see people continue to struggle with their anxiety is their mistaken beliefs about what anxiety is and how it works. Because here’s the thing: when you misunderstand what anxiety really is and how it actually works, it’s very easy to unintentionally make that anxiety worse.
So if you want to feel less anxious, the first step is actually to unlearn all of those unhelpful myths and misconceptions you’ve heard about anxiety, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.
Over the next few minutes I’m going to walk you through seven of the most common misconceptions and myths about anxiety that are out there.
1. You Need to Understand Your Anxiety’s Origins
Myth number one: you need to understand the origins of your anxiety.
Just because analyzing your past is interesting doesn’t mean it’s helpful. And the reason comes down to one crucial distinction: the initial cause of your anxiety is very rarely the maintaining cause of your anxiety.
For example, let’s say you can trace your anxiety all the way back to your parents’ contentious divorce when you were six years old. Now, that may very well have been the event that set in motion or triggered your anxiety in the first place, but your parents’ divorce is not causing your anxiety right now as an adult.
Your anxiety is being caused right now by your habits in the present — chronic worry, for instance, or obsessive reassurance-seeking — and until you address those maintaining causes, your anxiety will persist.
So by all means explore and process the origins of your anxiety in the past, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that by analyzing the origins of your anxiety you will change what’s causing your anxiety in the present.
2. Anxiety Is Dangerous
Myth number two: anxiety is dangerous.
Just because something feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad. For example, muscle soreness after a really good workout means your muscles are gonna feel really sore, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s actually a good thing. It means that your muscles are growing and strengthening.
Well, anxiety falls in the same category as muscle soreness. It feels bad but it isn’t actually dangerous. See, anxiety is just a form of inaccurate or misguided fear, and like all uncomfortable emotions, while sometimes painful and scary, fear and anxiety can’t actually hurt you directly.
Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t indirect effects associated with anxiety. So over time, for example, anxiety can lead to chronic stress, and chronic stress is associated with a variety of harmful, unhelpful outcomes.
But here’s the thing, the key insight about anxiety that you need to know: when you worry about anxiety in the moment, you teach your brain to believe that anxiety itself is dangerous, and this only makes you more anxious because you’re getting anxious about being anxious.
So worrying about the dangers of anxiety in the moment is the very thing that leads to the long-term anxiety that is associated with chronic stress and the potential risk it brings.
So the best way not to get stuck in long-term anxiety is actually to stop worrying about your anxiety in the moment and be accepting of it instead.
3. Anxiety Requires Coping Skills
Myth number three: you need coping skills to manage your anxiety.
Here’s the problem with coping skills: they provide short-term relief at the expense of long-term suffering. For example, let’s say that whenever you feel especially anxious you immediately close your eyes and do a mindfulness meditation as your way to cope with your anxiety.
Now, that might help distract you from the anxiety or make you feel calmer and more relaxed in the moment, but by immediately doing something to try and get rid of your anxiety, you’re teaching your brain that it’s not okay to feel anxious, that anxiety is bad. This means that the next time you feel anxious you’re going to feel anxious about being anxious.
This is the same dilemma we talked about in the last point, talking about anxiety being harmful or damaging. So remember, anxiety feels bad, but that doesn’t mean it is bad.
So if you immediately go around treating your anxiety like it is by immediately trying to get rid of it with lots of coping skills, what do you think is going to happen? You’re training your brain to fear fear itself, and that is a setup for much worse anxiety in the long term.
4. Anxiety Is a Weakness
Myth number four: anxiety is a weakness.
A lot of people are raised to believe that feeling anxious is a sign of weakness. As a child, maybe your parents or siblings criticized you whenever you mentioned feeling afraid. Or maybe you watched someone else who was nervous and afraid being shamed by someone for it, like one parent who is constantly mocked or criticized for their timidness or fear by the other parent.
Whatever the origins of this belief, it can be a surprisingly hard thing to shake, because while many people can acknowledge intellectually that feeling anxious isn’t actually a sign of weakness, they still feel that way experientially, especially in the moment.
So for example, let’s say you just gave a big presentation at work but you got really anxious at one point during the presentation, and you mixed up some key information as a result.
You spend the rest of the day ruminating and worrying about it, saying things to yourself like, “That was really stupid that I mixed those clients up and I got so muddled about it. I can’t believe I got so flustered. Why can’t I be more confident like the rest of them? I’m sure now that they think I’m unreliable because this is the second time in a week that I’ve gotten visibly frustrated and anxious in front of the team.”
So even though intellectually you wouldn’t say, probably, that anxiety is a sign of weakness, your self-talk suggests that in the moment you feel otherwise. And if that’s how you respond to anxiety, with tons of worry and negative self-talk, that’s what your brain is going to continue to believe — that having anxiety is a weakness.
5. You Were Just Born This Way
Myth number five: anxiety is just something you’re born with.
One of the most common things I hear from people who want to be less anxious is that they’re afraid it will never change because that’s just who they are.
So they often say things like, you know, “I want to be less anxious, but maybe that’s just how I’m wired,” or “My grandmother was anxious; my mom was anxious; maybe I’m just born anxious too.” Or my personal favorite: “I’ve always been an anxious person. I probably just have the gene for it.”
Here’s the thing: there is no anxiety gene that predetermines who will struggle with anxiety and who won’t. In fact, at most the research suggests that about 30% of a person’s proclivity for anxiety is based on heritable factors. But even then it has more to do with how sort of basic temperament interacts with early experiences.
Nobody pops out of the womb worrying and fretting. By and large anxiety comes from learning and experience, through modeling either at a really young age or over time, and through experience we develop certain habits like worry and avoidance that lead to long-term anxiety as an adult.
But the good news is what is learned can be unlearned. And no matter what happened in your past to create the habits of anxiety, it’s always possible to build new habits in the present that will lessen your overall anxiety.
6. Worry and Anxiety Are the Same Thing
Myth number six: worry and anxiety are the same thing.
Worry and anxiety are actually very different things, and understanding that difference is one of the most important keys to lowering your anxiety long term.
See, worry is a thought or a series of thoughts. For example, “Oh my god, what if he thought that I was insulting him with that last comment?” Or “I’ll never get that promotion.” Or “Hmm my chest feels funny. I’m probably having a heart attack.”
Anxiety, on the other hand, is an emotion or a class of emotions. Feeling nervous, for example, before a really big performance, or feeling terrified that you’re going to have a panic attack. Or maybe you’re feeling on edge in a room full of new people.
In any case, this distinction between worry as a form of thinking and anxiety as an emotion is crucial because you can control your thinking, but you can’t actually control your emotions. Not directly, anyway.
See, difficult as it is sometimes, it is possible to stop worrying and to redirect your attention onto something else. But you can’t directly control your emotions, anxiety included. There’s no secret anxiety lever you can just pull anytime you want to feel less anxious. You can only change how you feel, your emotions, indirectly, primarily by changing how you think.
See, most people start feeling anxious, and they go right to trying to make their anxiety go away. But as we’ve talked about this tends to backfire and only serves to make you more afraid of your own anxiety. When you’re anxious about being anxious you’re just way more anxious.
At the same time, people tend to ignore worrying because it feels like this thing they can’t really control.
But here’s the thing: controlling your worry is actually the only way to control your anxiety. And ironically, the best way to free yourself from anxiety is to learn to let go of your desire to control your anxiety itself, and instead practice taking control over your worry.
It’s All in Your Head
Myth number seven: it’s all in your head.
Even though worry is the only direct cause of anxiety, that doesn’t mean that anxiety is all in your head.
One of the biggest reasons actually that people get stuck in patterns of chronic worry and all the anxiety that produces is that they aren’t very good at managing their relationships. More specifically, they aren’t assertive enough and they don’t know how to set healthy boundaries.
So to be perfectly blunt, a lot of anxiety ultimately stems from unhealthy relationships.
So think about it: if you struggle to ask for what you want assertively, you’re going to be constantly keeping other people happy and at the same time ignoring your own wants and needs. Or if you struggle to set or enforce healthy boundaries, you’re going to be overwhelmed by other people’s requests and demands, which is going to lead to a lot of worry and stress and anxiety.
So sometimes the best way to reduce your anxiety is actually to get out of your head and to look at your relationships with other people instead. And ultimately it’s critical that you learn to communicate assertively and set healthy boundaries.
All right. That’s a wrap.
I hope you found these ideas really helpful. If you’d like to learn more about some practical tools and ideas for managing anxiety and other difficult emotions, I actually send out a free weekly newsletter that talks about ideas, strategies, tips for building emotional strength and resilience, and you can find all that at my website, which is nickwignall.com.
Back to Emma
Thanks again to Nick for sharing his wisdom here. I really like his newsletter; it’s one of the only ones that I consistently read. So check it out. The link is in the description.
Thank you for watching, and take care.