To overcome problems with anxiety, it is important for the sufferer’s brain to not only re-learn that specific feared situations, objects and circumstances are safe, but also to be equipped with alternative coping strategies.
However, this can be difficult as the sufferer can still be overwhelmed by anxiety even when they know consciously that situations, objects or circumstances are safe. For example, some people can feel extremely anxious with animals, heights, speaking in public, etc – even when they know very well that they will be fine.
This happens because our mind and body reactions are managed by different parts of the brain. Our brain is designed so that our emotions are stronger than our thoughts, when it comes to controlling our body and mind.
To help with overcoming anxiety, psychologists often use Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques, such as psycho-education, exposure and cognitive restructuring.
In therapy, the sufferer is provided with the opportunity to learn all about anxiety and how it works.
One of the key features in psycho-education is the normalisation of anxiety. It is about learning that experiencing anxiety and the engagement in behaviours to avoid anxiety are not crazy, because that is the way the human brain has been designed.
Psycho-education can help sufferers to learn that anxiety is not mystery or magic. Anxiety Disorders are not something that come out of the middle of nowhere; they are treatable and the symptoms can be eased with psychotherapy in many cases. Psycho-education helps people to develop hope that they can overcome anxiety.
When using the exposure technique, the sufferer is exposed to the feared situations or objects in a safe way while being engaged in a relaxation technique, such as abdominal breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, or mindfulness breathing.
In therapy, the sufferer is exposed to imaginary and/or real situations and objects. Depending on personal circumstances, the individual may be exposed to the most anxiety stimulating situation or object from the first time (called flooding). The sufferer may also create a list of feared situations/objects, listing them from least fearful to most fearful (fear hierarchy), and then, expose themselves from the least fearful one until they overcome the most fearful situation or object. This whole process is called systematic desensitisation.
According to research, the sufferer’s anxiety level has been found to go down when they remain in the feared situation/with feared objects for a while. Exposure provides the opportunity for the brain to re-learn that situations/objects are not as threatening as previously believed.
In cognitive restructuring, the sufferer is given opportunities to challenge, check the validity and replace the beliefs, self-talk or thinking patterns that cause them to experience overwhelming levels of anxiety.
In some cases, people experience overwhelming anxiety because of dysfunctional beliefs and negative self-talk about certain situations/objects that are over-generalized, over-exaggerated, not realistic, rational, and/or logical.
By changing beliefs, thinking patterns and self-talk, the sufferer’s reactions to anxiety stimulating situations and/or objects can be changed.
Depression often goes hand in hand with anxiety disorders. This makes sense because when a person suffers from overwhelming anxiety symptoms, it interferes with their ability to lead a full and happy life. It can be very stressful and frustrating, leading to depression. When a person is experiencing both anxiety and depression, it can make it more difficult to change their life situation/s.
When a person is also experiencing depression, it can be useful to take medication such as an anti-depressant, to improve overall mood. This then allows the individual to become more positive and active in taking actions to overcome their anxiety problems.
Making a Start
As soon as you find that anxiety is overwhelming and you feel you do not know what to do, it is a good idea to consult a health professional, such as a GP, psychologist, counsellor or social worker, experienced in treating people with anxiety disorders.
It can be also useful to build up some knowledge through books and online websites, and utilising some self-help strategies. However, treatment is more effective when health professionals thoroughly assess individual circumstances and implement interventions that are tailored to your unique circumstances.
Author: Yu Takizawa, B Sc (Hons), M Couns, M App Psych.
Yu Takizawa is a Brisbane psychologist, fluent in both English and Japanese. He is particularly interested in offering counselling and psychotherapy services to people who are facing cultural challenges, or problems with anxiety.
To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychologist Yu Takizawa, you can try Online Booking – Mt Gravatt or call Vision Psychology (Mt Gravatt) by freecalling 1800 877 924.