Over 20 million adults in the U.S. suffer from some type of anxiety disorder. In fact, most of us have experienced anxiety at some point in our lives. Normal anxiety alerts us to real danger. But when we focus excessively on fear and danger and our anxiety becomes overwhelming, our lives can be seriously affected. Severe anxiety interferes with relationships, with work, and with the overall quality of life.
The good news is that people who seek treatment for anxiety disorders have a very high success rate.
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Common concerns that accompany anxiety disorders
Individuals respond to their anxiety in a variety of ways, but there are common concerns and behaviors often experienced by those suffering from anxiety:
Uncertainty about future threats, risks, or dangers
Some people feel most anxious about the future: about threats, risks or dangers that may or may not occur. No one can achieve perfect certainty about the future, so the goal in therapy is to learn how to tolerate uncertainty so we can live life more fully in the present without fear. It is possible to be uncertain and not anxious. We can tolerate uncertainty and still enjoy our lives.
Avoidance of situations which cause anxiety
The first reaction of many people to the symptoms of anxiety is to try to avoid feeling the anxiety — for example, some people avoid driving, some may not speak or even go to social gatherings. They steer clear of anything that brings up anxious feelings. Although avoidance may seem to help at the time, the more we avoid the more entrenched the anxiety becomes. Avoidance actually reinforces the negative beliefs that feed anxiety.
Anxiety with depression or negative core beliefs.
Some individuals have been anxious for so long and have so limited their lives as a result that they become depressed and develop an enduring negative sense of themselves. Or, a long-standing sense of low self-esteem can predispose an individual to anxiety. By learning to confront what you fear instead of avoiding, you can replace hopeless feelings with a sense of effectiveness. Sometimes changing these core negative beliefs can be the key approach for a host of anxiety disorders.
How Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can help
Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is effective in treating many of the anxiety disorders. CBT helps you understand anxiety and what it does to the mind and body and offers you techniques to help manage it.
Where do we start in helping to manage anxiety? First, it’s important to become aware of what you are feeling and what you are doing or not doing to lessen the anxiety. We use behavioral techniques to help introduce new behaviors and address avoidance. And we also work on shifting thoughts that tend to increase your anxiety.
For some kinds of anxiety we learn to manage the behavioral symptoms with relaxation and mindfulness. When we’re anxious, we may take shallow and fast breaths, triggering lightheadedness and a rapid heart beat. One specific technique involves learning slow deep breathing to calm the anxiety.
For other kinds of anxiety it is important to learn to react differently to the situations and bodily sensations that trigger panic attacks and other anxiety symptoms. Individuals learn how their thinking patterns actually magnify their symptoms. Changing these thoughts can also change the symptoms.
For more detailed information
The Academy of Cognitive Therapy website provides an excellent Overview of Anxiety Disorders
which includes descriptions of helpful CBT treatment strategies for each type of anxiety disorder.
Anxiety profile – what you may experience
| Physical reactions
- Sweaty Palms
- Muscle tension
- Racing heart
- Flushed Cheeks
- Overestimation of danger
- Underestimation of your ability to cope
- Underestimation of help available
- Worries and catastrophic thoughts
- Avoiding situations where anxiety might occur
- Leaving situations when anxiety begins to occur
- Trying to do things perfectly or trying to control events to prevent danger
Anxiety Profile, Page 175. Dennis Greenberger Ph.D. and Christine A. Padesky Ph.D., Mind Over Mood, 1995, Reprinted with permission of Guilford Press.