Some may wonder why this is. In today’s society, with all of the unique stressors of contemporary living, why would anxiety be seemingly more prevalent than other presenting concerns?
More importantly, with such a prevalent phenomenon, what is there to understand about anxiety? Where does it stem from? How is it treated?
This article seeks to establish a basic understanding of anxiety and its treatment.
An Evolutionary Perspective
Although anxiety can be a problematic response for many individuals, and although it can develop into a crippling condition, it can also serve to be a life-saving response. The anxiety response has been made to be universal for all humans due to our evolutionary roots .
From the very beginning, anxiety was a response that was hard-wired into the human mind and body as a means of survival . Anxiety, in humans, stems all the way back to the beginnings of the fight or flight response. When human beings were presented with a life-threatening situation, their bodies would produce an anxious reaction, indicating the threat of potential harm or death. This response would cause the individual to flee, thus saving their life. In this sense, we are all programmed to experience anxiety, which indicates why so many caseloads feature clients with this type of problem.
Because anxiety has evolutionary roots, and because no human is exempt from this hard-wired evolutionary trait, it is not surprising that this type of disorder makes up the majority of a counselor’s caseload. Whereas all humans are not hard-wired to respond to a given type of situation with depression, all humans are, in fact, programmed to resort to an anxiety response.
Although evolution has wired us all for such a response, some individuals manage it in more effective, adaptive, ways through their cognitive style and directly observing or acknowledging evidence related to the situation , while others experience difficulty differentiating an actual threat from an assumed threat [2, 3, 4].
While some anxiety disorders, phobias, and other anxiety responses are learned, others are picked up through modeling what we see others do; some are learned through mere assumption of outcomes without any evidence; and others are adopted for myriad complex reasons .
It can be seen that each of these is unique to the individual. However, just as many of these responses are learned. One can rest assured that, if attended to, they can also be unlearned.
Treating Anxiety Disorders
Typically, medical professionals prescribe mild tranquilizers for anxiety disorders . Many authorities recommend medication when used in conjunction with psychotherapy. It is believed that this will help manage symptoms while coping techniques are learned by the client [5, 6].
Various forms of talk therapy have been found to be very effective in treating anxiety disorders . According to the American Psychological Association (2010), Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy has been most effective with these disorders, as it focuses on helping the client to learn ways to manage the factors that trigger their symptoms. Clients learn ways to change their patterns of thinking to manage their responses to anxiety-inducing situations, but also learn behavioral techniques to control undesirable behaviors related to the disorder, as well .
What Makes Therapy Work?
There are numerous potential reasons as to why talk therapy has been found to be effective. It can be seen that most anxiety responses are a product of thinking, assuming, and learning.
First, and foremost, the fact that anxiety states are induced due to psychological and physiological activity indicates that there is interplay between one’s thinking and their bodily response . Secondly, research has indicated that anxiety can be a learned response through numerous avenues, as encountering an aversive stimulus can teach an individual to avoid such a situation or event in the future .
Fears and anxiety can also be learned from modeling the behaviors of others , such as a specific phobia. Essentially, an individual will witness another person fear a given stimulus, and then adopt that behavior as their own because they assume the dangerousness of the situation and translate it to their own life.
Finally, cognitive theories have explained anxiety responses well, as they indicate that an individual’s perceptions, expectations, thinking, and beliefs about a particular situation or event will potentially trigger anxiety [1, 3, 4].
After taking all of the above into consideration, it goes without saying that anxiety disorders are more complex than a mere physiological response. It is abundantly clear that human thinking serves to be the trigger of that physiological response, which is why therapy might be so effective.
In therapy, especially under the research-supported Cognitive Behavioral approach, clients learn ways to confront these types of maladaptive thinking, thus breaking the connection between their thinking and the triggering of undesired physiological responses. This approach alone indicates how heavily cognitive processes influence anxiety. Furthermore, in therapy, new ways to manage and modify behavior can be learned, as well. For example, relaxation and stress reduction techniques learned in therapy can be immensely beneficial in curtailing intense physiological responses.
Counseling and therapy have the potential to open the gateway to some clients beginning to understand where the root of their anxiety resides . Furthermore, in therapy, clients can learn appropriate responses to managing their symptoms.
Thinking can be changed, coping behaviors can be learned, and, in a safe and supportive environment, clients can take an active role in confronting the reasons as to why specific situations induce anxiety. Once this understanding is uncovered, clients, with their counselor, can deconstruct the thinking behind it in order to resolve it.
Finally, counseling and psychotherapy have the ability to produce long-term results insomuch as they teach life skills and insights that can be used for the duration of the client’s life. Clients walk away from treatment with something that can potentially last forever. In the event that psychotherapy ceases or treatment terminates after a successful course of treatment, the client will still possess ways to self-regulate and manage their symptoms and behaviors.
In this sense, when discussing long-term effectiveness after treatment concludes, counseling and psychotherapy will most likely produce lasting results, as clients, in a sense, learn to engage in self-counseling and become independent from their therapist.
- Lemma, A. (1996). Introduction to psychopathology. London: Sage Publications Ltd. National Institute of Mental Health. (2012). Treatment of anxiety disorders. Retrieved on January 13, 2013 from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/anxiety-disorders/treatment-of-anxiety-disorders.shtml.
- Comer, R. (2007). Anxiety disorders. Abnormal psychology (Sixth ed., pp. 116-124). New York: Worth Publishers.
- Beck, A.T. (1979). The alarm is worse than the fire: Anxiety neurosis. Cognitive therapy and the emotional disorders (pp. 132-155). New York: Penguin Books.
- Beck, A.T. & Emery, G. (1985). Anxiety disorders and phobias. A cognitive perspective. USA: Basic Books.
- American Psychological Association. (2010). Anxiety disorders and effective treatment. Retrieved on January 13th, 2013 from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/anxiety-treatment.aspx.
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America. (2012). Medication. Retrieved on January 13th, 2013 from http://www.adaa.org/finding-help/treatment/medication
Photo courtesy of Bill Abbott on flickr