But you may experience anxiety that is persistent, seemingly uncontrollable and overwhelming. If it’s an excessive, irrational dread of everyday situations, it can be disabling. When anxiety interferes with daily activities, you may have an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders are very real and serious medical conditions - just as real and serious as physical disorders such as heart disease or diabetes. Anxiety disorders are the most common and pervasive mental disorders in the United States. The term "anxiety disorder" refers to specific psychiatric disorders that involve extreme fear or worry, and includes generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder and panic attacks, agoraphobia, social anxiety disorder, selective mutism, separation anxiety and specific phobias.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are closely related to anxiety disorders, which some may experience at the same time as depression.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome, also called IBS, is characterized by abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, gas, constipation, and diarrhea.
Facts and Statistics
Whether you’re suffering from panic attacks, obsessive thoughts, unrelenting worries or an incapacitating phobia, it’s important to know that you don’t have to live with anxiety and fear. Treatment can help, and for many anxiety problems, therapy is often the most effective option. That’s because anxiety therapy—unlike anxiety medication—treats more than just the symptoms of the problem. Therapy can help you uncover the underlying causes of your worries and fears; learn how to relax; look at situations in new, less frightening ways; and develop better coping and problem-solving skills. Therapy gives you the tools to overcome anxiety and teaches you how to use them.
Anxiety disorders differ considerably, so therapy should be tailored to your specific symptoms and diagnosis. If you have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), for example, your treatment will be different from someone who needs help for anxiety attacks. The length of therapy will also depend on the type and severity of your anxiety disorder. However, many anxiety therapies are relatively short-term. According to the American Psychological Association, many people improve significantly within 8 to 10 therapy sessions.
While many different types of therapy are used to treat anxiety, the leading approaches are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy. Each anxiety therapy may be used alone, or combined with other types of therapy. Anxiety therapy may be conducted individually, or it may take place in a group of people with similar anxiety problems. But the goal is the same: to lower your anxiety levels, calm your mind, and overcome your fears.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most widely-used therapy for anxiety disorders. Research has shown it to be effective in the treatment of panic disorder, phobias, social anxiety disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder, among many other conditions.
CBT addresses negative patterns and distortions in the way we look at the world and ourselves. As the name suggests, this involves two main components:
Cognitive therapy examines how negative thoughts, or cognitions, contribute to anxiety.
Behavior therapy examines how you behave and react in situations that trigger anxiety.
The basic premise of CBT is that our thoughts—not external events—affect the way we feel. In other words, it’s not the situation you’re in that determines how you feel, but your perception of the situation. For example, imagine that you’ve just been invited to a big party. Consider three different ways of thinking about the invitation, and how those thoughts would affect your emotions.
Situation: A friend invites you to a big party
Thought #1: The party sounds like a lot of fun. I love going out and meeting new people!
Emotions: Happy, excited
Thought #2: Parties aren’t my thing. I’d much rather stay in and watch a movie.
Thought #3: I never know what to say or do at parties. I’ll make a fool of myself if I go.
Emotions: Anxious, sad
As you can see, the same event can lead to completely different emotions in different people. It all depends on our individual expectations, attitudes, and beliefs. For people with anxiety disorders, negative ways of thinking fuel the negative emotions of anxiety and fear. The goal of cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety is to identify and correct these negative thoughts and beliefs. The idea is that if you change the way you think, you can change the way you feel.
Thought challenging—also known as cognitive restructuring—is a process in which you challenge the negative thinking patterns that contribute to your anxiety, replacing them with more positive, realistic thoughts. This involves three steps:
To understand how thought challenging works in cognitive behavioral therapy, consider the following example: Maria won’t take the subway because she’s afraid she’ll pass out, and then everyone will think she’s crazy. Her therapist has asked her to write down her negative thoughts, identify the errors—or cognitive distortions—in her thinking, and come up with a more rational interpretation. The results are below.
Challenging Negative Thoughts:
Negative thought #1: What if I pass out on the subway? Cognitive distortion: Predicting the worst
More realistic thought: I’ve never passed out before, so it’s unlikely that I will on the subway.
Negative thought #2: If I pass out, it will be terrible! Cognitive distortion: Blowing things out of proportion
More realistic thought: If I faint, I’ll come to in a few moments. That’s not so terrible.
Negative thought #3: People will think I’m crazy. Cognitive distortion: Jumping to conclusions
More realistic thought: People are more likely to be concerned if I’m okay.
Replacing negative thoughts with more realistic ones is easier said than done. Often, negative thoughts are part of a lifelong pattern of thinking. It takes practice to break the habit. That’s why cognitive behavioral therapy includes practicing on your own at home as well. CBT may also include:
Learning to recognize when you’re anxious and what that feels like in the body
Learning coping skills and relaxation techniques to counteract anxiety and panic
Confronting your fears (either in your imagination or in real life)