Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a widely used approach to treat symptoms of general anxiety disorder (GAD). The goal of CBT is to help an individual be more tolerant of their worrying behaviors, thus decreasing the negative psychological and physical symptoms of GAD. Applied relaxation (AR) is an alternative approach that is used for various mental health problems, including GAD. It focuses on the somatic symptoms of tension and physical discomfort associated with anxiety, with the goal of reducing worry. Both CBT and AR have been shown to be effective at diminishing the symptoms of GAD in individuals who struggle with emotional and somatic symptoms. However, few studies have compared the dynamics that cause the symptom reduction in each of these treatment approaches.
Eleanor Donegan of the Department of Psychology at Concordia University in Montreal sought to identify the mechanisms by which AR and CBT worked and also to determine if one was more effective than the other at maintaining long-term symptom reduction. For her study, Donegan evaluated 57 individuals who underwent either AR or CBT over a period of 12 weeks. She found that for both groups, the amount of time they spent worrying each day decreased from approximately 36% of the time to 20%. Additionally, both AR and CBT reduced the amount of daily anxiety by nearly 50%.
Donegan noted that even though the participants were much less anxious as a result of their treatment, they still had significantly higher levels of worry and anxiety than non–clinically anxious individuals. When Donegan looked at how the effects were achieved, she found similarities and differences. Specifically, even though both AR and CBT decreased somatic anxiety, the effect on worry was more significant in the individuals who underwent CBT. However, Donegan believes that both of these techniques could be useful to address GAD. She added, “Change in worry occurs in part because of change in somatic anxiety, and vice versa, in both CBT and AR.”
Donegan, E., Dugas, M. J. (2012). Generalized anxiety disorder: A comparison of symptom change in adults receiving cognitive-behavioral therapy or applied relaxation. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0028132
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