Understanding Anxiety So You Can Be More Compassionate & Less Judgmental

understanding anxiety

Anxiety disorders affect 40 million Americans (18% of the population). And more than half of us report feeling extreme stress. With its rising incidence and prevalence, understanding anxiety is critical.

The statistics alone make it highly likely you know someone (even yourself) who suffers from anxiety. Learning about anxiety – understanding it, even befriending it – can help you more compassionately and effectively work with it, or someone who suffers from it.

The Chinese believe that before you can conquer a beast you must first make it beautiful.
~Kay Redfield Jamison, An Unquiet Mind~

Too often, anxiety is viewed as a purely negative force, something to be overcome or avoided.

And, unfortunately, people who struggle with anxiety often feel judged as people to be avoided – sometimes even by themselves.

Granted, too much anxiety can be crippling to anyone struggling with it, and difficult to witness or be around. But anxiety’s mere presence doesn’t need to be off-putting or damning to anyone.

In moderations, anxiety can actually be a positive force – even a super power. But recognizing this is necessary to allow that to happen since misunderstanding and avoiding anxiety can make it worse. Understanding anxiety allows for compassion to blossom and judgment to fall by the wayside.

The quickest way to understand anxiety and build compassion for those who struggle with it is to dispel five common myths that pervade our culture.


1. Anxiety is a sign of imbalance.

For the anxious person, anxiety plays an important role and often brings signs with it. But imbalance doesn’t have to be one of them.What anxiety brings to the anxious person is awareness – often heightened awareness. People with anxiety are very aware of everything that’s going on around them and with the people they care about.

Sometimes, the awareness is projected into the future in both helpful and unhelpful ways. But awareness doesn’t have to be negative.

What’s important to remember is that people who struggle with anxiety do so because they care – a lot.

2. Anxiety is a relic of our prehistoric brain.

Anxiety is a powerful internal system that has evolved over thousands of years to drive adaptation and change. Its primitive origin – in the amygdala– and its capacity to override other systems underscores its value as a powerful and primary survival tool.Just because today’s threats are seldom the physical ones of our ancestors doesn’t mean anxiety isn’t constantly updating. In fact, our brains are continually updating, and adapting to our most important needs.

In today’s distracted world, anxiety’s energy can help keep us resist complacency and keep us focused – especially when we know how to befriend it.

3. Anxiety is hardwired and inflexible.

A common misconception is that those with anxiety are simply stuck and there’s little to be done about it. Important to remember is that anxiety isn’t a hardware, but rather a “software” that can be altered, sculpted and redirected. Science repeatedly demonstrates our brains’ capacities for change throughout our lifespan.What this means is that people with anxiety can learn to interact with their anxiety differently, and more effectively.

With curiosity and practice, anxiety can actually help keep us at the top of our game so we can keep striving for our best selves.

4. Anxiety limits performance.

Many anxiety sufferers, and those who interact with them, fear anxiety is getting in the way of them being their best selves, especially in high-stakes situations. Yet this doesn’t have to be th case.

When it’s appropriately harnessed, anxiety can actually be a source of optimal performance.

5. Some people are unlucky and genetically pre-disposed to anxiety.

Many anxiety sufferers feel victimized by biological circumstance, doomed to carry the same anxious genes carried by their parents. However, biology does not have to beWhile studies have documented that anxiety can be heritable with similar anxiety responses often running in families, “what is inherited is the potentialfor anxiety, not anxiety itself.”

So, someone can carry the potential for anxiety, but not be sentenced to a lifetime of struggle. How we think about anxiety, and what we do with it, matter in determining how we experience it. Simply changing how you think about anxiety can change your experience of it.

Learning to think differently about an anxiety experience requires effort, and practice.

Compassion and respect for someone’s experience can help them feel the support they need to use their anxiety for good, even when what they need is to stretch toward a healthier attitude.

6. Anxiety can be avoided, ignored and ultimately, eliminated.

Probably the biggest myth about anxiety is that it can be ignored and avoided away. Although avoidance may work temporarily, or seem viable given how thinking and/or behaving away other obstacles can work, it never solves anxiety. Anxiety simply doesn’t work that way.

When we attempt to relieve anxiety’s discomfort by ignoring it, the anxiety increases. Its job after all is to get our attention.

When we try to ignore anxiety, it tends to escalate and become much more difficult to deal with, whereas the opposite is true.

Anxiety isn’t a sign of imbalance. It’s not unhelpful, fixed, limiting, dictated by biology, or simply something to get over.

Those who suffer with anxiety tend to have a different way of interacting with the world because they care so much about so many things. They want to help protect and nurture all that they care about to the best of their abilities.

When we view people with anxiety from this perspective, we can better understand them, and their anxiety. Anxious people deserve our compassion as they work through the challenges of caring so much about us, and everything else that touches their lives. Understanding anxiety as much as possible can help us do just that.


For more help managing anxiety, check out my new book, Hack Your Anxiety, register for my free mini-ecourse by signing up for book bonuses here, or check-out my anxiety and relationships blogs.  

Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash


Alicia H. Clark, PsyD