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Four anxiety myths

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Anxiety disorders are widely misunderstood. Everybody feels anxious at times, but in an anxiety disorder, the feelings take over a person's life. Here are the facts about four common anxiety disorders.

Myth: Being worried all the time is not an actual illness. Everyone is anxious sometimes.

Fact: Everyone is worried sometimes, but it is not normal to be worried almost all the time. People who cannot shake irrational worries, who worry about things out of proportion to their importance, or who have a constant sense of "free-floating" anxiety may suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a common but very treatable anxiety disorder.

Myth: If you can't stand to step on cracks, are fussy about your things, or wash your hands a lot, you "are OCD" (have obsessive-compulsive disorder).

Fact: Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a debilitating illness that robs people of their time, often hours a day. It profoundly disrupts people's lives, activities, and relationships, and its sufferers might feel like prisoners to their obsessions (intrusive thoughts) and compulsions (actions they must do to get rid of the intrusive thoughts). Many people have quirky little compulsions like avoiding cracks or arranging their food "just so," but this should not be confused with true obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is many times more severe.

Myth: "Social anxiety disorder" is a made-up disorder. Lots of people are shy.

Fact: Shyness is not the same as social anxiety disorder. In this disorder, normal, everyday social situations cause extreme fear and self-consciousness, and sufferers often avoid these situations. The situations that are unbearable for sufferers of this disorder are things like making transactions with cashiers, eating in front of other people, talking to receptionists, and other unavoidable activities of everyday life.

Myth: Panic attacks are not a real illness, like a heart attack is.

Fact: The symptoms of a panic attack are very much like the symptoms of a heart attack and can include chest pains, choking, tingling in the extremities, difficulty breathing, and a sense of impending doom. Onset is sudden and may not have any apparent trigger.

Unlike a heart attack, a panic attack does not cause any long-term physical damage. But panic disorder, a condition in which the sufferer experiences recurrent and severe panic attacks, often does cause long-term damage, both psychological (phobias, depression) and physical (medical complications, substance abuse, suicide). People who suffer recurrent panic attacks should be encouraged to get treatment.

Read more information on panic disorder from the American Psychological Association.

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Image credit: "Hi Anxiety" by Tom Thornton. (CC) Some rights reserved.

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