There are a lot of misconceptions about anxiety – sometimes, even within the medical profession.
“A psychiatrist my father sent me to said ‘it sounds like something you’ll get over’,” says Split Enz musician Mike Chunn. “And I thought, ‘well f*ck you’.”
But more often than not, it’s friends and whānau who get things wrong.
Mental Health Nurse Jenna Goldsworthy says many people don’t understand the difference between feeling anxious and having anxiety.
“They think ‘oh you’re just worried’, or ‘you’re just nervous’. I don’t think they quite understand the physiological and emotional reactions that happen, and the impact that it can have,” she says. “I think that there’s a tendency for people to say ‘toughen up, what have you got to worry about’.”
The classic kiwi “harden up” and “she’ll be right” attitudes can be damaging.
“I think one of the biggest misconceptions of anxiety is that people will get over it, or that things will come right,” says Clinical Psychologist Dr Epenesa Olo-Whaanga. “And I think that keeps people from asking for help.”
Anxiety is also sometimes used as a punchline for a joke. People might laughingly say that they tidied their house because they’re “so OCD” or that a bad date “gave them PTSD”, when anxiety disorders go much deeper.
And there are also different cultural expectations to contend with.
Counsellor Shirleen Prasad says different cultures have different attitudes towards mental health, and some people with anxiety fear bringing shame to their families.
“Because our roles are so embedded in our obligations – bringing honour to our families, being good role models to our cousins, to our siblings – how can we disclose that we’re not doing well?” she asks.
Ivan Yeo is the Deputy Director at Asian Family Services, and he’s also had personal experience with anxiety.
“Back in Malaysia in the 1980s there was not a lot of knowledge and understanding about mental health,” Yeo says.
“My parents were quite superstitious and thought they’d consult with a Chinese priest to see if there was something wrong. The belief was that I was low in energy so it could be that some evil spirit was attacking me.”
Later in life Yeo realised it wasn’t low energy he battled – it was anxiety.
“I was never able to articulate it until I read the psychological textbooks and I realised what I have. There’s not many Asians that would put their hands up and say ‘I have mental health conditions’.”
Cultural and family expectations can lead people to hide their anxiety.
“People often downplay it to it’s not as bad as it actually is,” says TikTok star Leighton Clarke (AKA Uncle Tics).
You can’t tell someone has anxiety from looking at them, says social media personality Krystine Nation.
“I think so many times the people that we think are the most confident, they’re usually the ones that are shrivelling up inside,” she says. “Confidence can sometimes be a front.”
Unlike having a cut or a broken arm, with anxiety it can be hard to see outward signs that something’s wrong.
Unravelling Anxiety follows the first Misconceptions series by Digital Alchemist, The Truth About Miscarriage.
Where to get help
If you think you may be experiencing anxiety, you can ask your GP or a counsellor for advice. You can also reach out to the following organisations:
- National Anxiety 24-hour Helpline
0800 269 4389
0800 ANXIETY Helpline | Anxiety NZ
- Lifeline Aotearoa
0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP) (available 24/7)
- Suicide Crisis Helpline
0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
0800 376 633
- Need to Talk?
Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
- Depression Helpline
0800 111 757 or text 4202
- Eating Disorders Carer Support NZ
EDCS Eating Disorders Carer Support NZ | Facebook