What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is an emotion characterised by feelings of tension, thoughts of worry, and physical symptoms such as an increased heart rate. Anxiety related disorders are common in both older adults and young people. Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is the most common anxiety-related condition. It is defined as a psychological disorder characterized by excessive or disproportionate anxiety about several aspects of life such as work, social relationships, or finances. GAD affects 6.8 million American adults, which amounts to 3.1% of the American population. Women are twice as likely to be affected by GAD than men.
Symptoms of Anxiety
Anxiety involves frequent and persistent symptoms that are not always connected to a stressful situation. These symptoms cause clinically significant distress to an individual and impacts their ability to continue with their daily functioning. While each anxiety disorder will carry its own unique features, common symptoms include:
Physical: panic attacks, hot/cold flushes, increased heart rate, rapid breathing, muscle tension, irritability, being easily tired, difficulty concentrating, sleeping difficulties
Psychological: excessive fear/worrying, obsessive thinking, negative automatic thoughts. catastrophising
Behavioural: avoidance of situations that are perceived as anxiety-provoking. Difficulty supressing worries/thoughts,
Psychological Treatments for Anxiety
Psychological treatments can help people who are experiencing anxiety, by changing their thinking patterns. This assists in managing anxiety-related symptoms and reduce irrational worries. There are several effective psychological treatments available for anxiety. The most common psychological treatments for anxiety are cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness therapy, and exposure therapy.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a structured psychological treatment used for a range of psychological disorders, including depression and anxiety. It can be administered in an individual or group setting. CBT suggests that the way we think (our thoughts or cognitions) and act (our behaviour) affects the way we feel (our emotions). CBT involves working collaboratively with a psychologist to identify thought and behaviour patterns that might be causing anxiety, or stopping an individual from getting better when they are experiencing anxiety. Once these patterns are identified, changes are made to replace these with new, more adaptive patterns that assist in reducing anxiety and developing coping skills.
Mindfulness can be defined as a mental state achieved by focusing awareness on the present moment, while acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and other bodily sensations. Mindfulness therapy for anxiety emphasises that trying to control or avoid our worries/negative thoughts by attempting to supress or change them, can sometimes strengthen them rather than reduce them. Mindfulness is a way of disengaging from, or letting go of negative thoughts. This approach involves practicing how to notice when you are about to experience negative thinking, then redirecting your attention back to the present, and focusing on the here and now. A recent meta-analysis published in the Psychological Bulletin, identified mindfulness practice as having an overall positive effect on improving psychological symptoms of anxiety and stress.
Exposure therapy is often used in conjunction with other psychological therapies such as CBT. It is often an essential component in testing new skills learnt during the course of therapy. That is, individuals must subject themselves to situations they are worried about, and utilise the tools that their therapist has armed them with, to cope with confronting their fears.
The physical symptoms of anxiety are caused by the ‘flight or fight’ response, which causes the release of adrenaline and other stress-related chemicals. These chemicals cause the symptoms experienced by people with anxiety-related disorders. Exercise uses these chemicals and promotes relaxation. Research has suggested that while one vigorous exercise session might reduce symptoms for hours, regular exercise in conjunction with medication, can reduce symptoms of anxiety in the long term. However, like most forms of therapy, effects can vary. Despite this, medical professionals are adamant that the beneficial effects of exercise on physical and mental health cannot be disputed.
Medication should never be perceived as a long-term therapeutic option. Furthermore, medication should not be considered a ‘solution’ to anxiety, rather than a short-term treatment. Current literature has shown that psychological therapies such as CBT are much more effective than medication in managing anxiety disorders in the long-term. However, medication might be prescribed in conjunction with psychological treatments. Many different types of medications are used in the treatment of anxiety related disorders, including benzodiazepines and SSRI’s. Although these medications will provide temporary relief from symptoms, they also come with significant side effects that should be monitored closely by your GP. As previously stated, medication might result in the short-term reduction of symptoms, however they will not cure anxiety-related disorders.