One of the most common requests I get from people in my psychotherapy practice is “Please help me get rid of this anxiety!” I have to explain to them that there is good news, and there is bad news.
The bad news is that you are not going to get rid of your anxiety.
In fact, it would be harmful to not be able to feel anxious. Anxiety and fear come with being alive. Anxiety can be useful when it causes you to be extra alert or careful, such as when you are walking to your car in a dark parking lot or taking a test.
Human beings were designed to feel anxious when faced with danger or challenges. It triggers the fight or flight response, which causes adrenaline and other chemicals to increase heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration; narrows our focus of attention; and enables us to do what we need to do to stay alive.
However, human beings were not designed to be chronically anxious. Recent studies have shown that chronic anxiety plays a major part in either causing or exacerbating several physical illnesses, including heart disease, gastrointestinal disorders, and chronic respiratory disorders. Therefore, it is a good thing to learn to manage your anxiety—which brings us to the good news.
The good news is that you can learn to calm yourself, reduce chronic anxiousness to brief, appropriate episodes, and eliminate panic attacks.
Fortunately, anxiety disorders are among the most successfully treated conditions, with success rates of nearly 90%. Numerous studies have shown that psychotherapy is usually the most effective option. Medication, although frequently prescribed, will help to relieve symptoms, while therapy gives you lifelong tools to manage anxiety effectively. Therapy for anxiety includes looking for underlying causes of worries and fears; learning how to relax; gaining new, less frightening perspectives when in stressful situations; and developing better coping and problem-solving skills.
There are several modes of therapy that psychotherapists use in helping people to manage their anxiety.
- Behavior therapy: teaches people in treatment to gain control of their physical responses through relaxation techniques, such as breathing from the diaphragm and grounding the body’s energy.
- Mindfulness techniques
- Distraction techniques
- Gradual exposure: reduces anxious responses to frightening objects or situations.
Cognitive behavioral therapy can successfully help people in treatment discover patterns of thinking that lead to panic and anxious reactions. Therapists help people in treatment become aware of any thoughts, beliefs, or behaviors that might be unhelpful and contribute to anxiousness. With the help of their therapist, people in treatment learn how to identify and challenge negative thoughts and replace them with realistic thoughts. People in treatment learn to gradually confront and tolerate fearful situations in a safe, controlled environment.
How Long Will I Be in Therapy?
According to the American Psychological Association, many people achieve significant improvement within eight to ten therapy sessions, although the length of therapy will depend on the type and severity of anxiety. Clients are usually encouraged to hear that they can expect to feel better so quickly.
However, therapy for anxiety is not passive. You will be expected to actively participate. During sessions, you may engage in deep breathing and grounding lessons, rehearsal of new behaviors, and journaling and writing activities. You will have “homework” to practice every day, preferably several times a day. Your mind and body have gotten into habits of anxious reaction, and it takes practice, practice, and more practice to create new mental and physical responses. I tell clients that their improvement is directly related to the amount of effort they put into doing their exercises every day.
The outlook for clients dealing with anxiety is hopeful, and you can get back in the driver’s seat of your mind. You may have occasional anxiety, but it doesn’t have to “have” you!
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