Anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorders in the United States, affecting about 40 million adults each year (The Anxiety and Depression Association of America).
In addition, studies show that the number of people with anxiety symptoms has skyrocketed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, millions of people seek anxiety counseling these days to ease their symptoms and regain control over their life.
What is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a generalized feeling of uneasiness or discomfort that we all experience from time to time. However, if you experience temporary feelings of apprehension or worry, this still does not mean that you suffer from an anxiety disorder. If such emotions don’t impact your life and wellbeing, they can be considered normal responses to stress.
However, anxiety turns into a problem when it becomes overwhelming and begins impacting your everyday life. Anxiety may affect your thoughts, emotions, and relationships. It can also manifest in real physical symptoms.
If you start avoiding your day-to-day activities to escape anxiety, you should consider anxiety counseling.
The Adaptive Role of Anxiety
Anxiety occurs as a natural cognitive, emotional, and physical stress response. In stressful situations, the cluster of neurons called the amygdala in our brain detects the threat, releasing stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones trigger the body’s “fight, flight, or freeze” response, protecting us against danger.
For example, anxiety can cause you to tremble and sweat when speaking in front of the class. Or to feel restless, tense, and worried when faced with a challenging situation at work. In other words, anxiety gives you a boost of energy and helps you cope with the situation. Once the danger is over, the level of stress hormones goes back to normal.
However, constant or excessive stress doesn’t allow your body to recover after the “fight, flight, or freeze” response, keeping the hormone levels in your body high. The increased level of stress hormones over a prolonged period can take a toll on your mental and physical health.
Anxiety counseling can help you:
Understand what causes your symptoms
Learn strategies to manage them
Change the dysfunctional thinking and behavior patterns that trigger anxiety
When Anxiety Becomes a Problem: The Most Common Symptoms of Anxiety
Anxiety disorders present themselves through various cognitive, emotional, and physical symptoms that interfere with your everyday life. Anxiety symptoms need to be addressed in psychotherapy if they:
Last for a prolonged time
Are out of proportion with usual reactions in a particular situation
Significantly disrupt your mood, productivity, relationships, and everyday life in general
Below are the most common signs to help you recognize anxiety and seek anxiety counseling on time.
Emotional and Cognitive Anxiety Symptoms
Uncontrollable worry and fear
Feeling agitated and irritated
Fearing a loss of control or that you are going crazy
Inability to rest
Generalized fear of approaching trouble
Avoiding situations or people that cause anxiety
Along with emotional and cognitive problems, you may experience physical symptoms of anxiety such as the following:
Legs and arms numbness
Shortness of breath
Increased heart rate
What are the Most Common Types of Anxiety Disorders?
Anxiety disorders cover a spectrum of mental health conditions. However, the most common forms of anxiety are the following:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). People with GAD experience an excessive and prolonged worry about everyday health, relationships, family, work, school, or money. Consider seeking anxiety counseling if you feel like this almost every day and your symptoms last at least six months.
Panic Disorder. People with panic disorder experience sudden, overwhelming, and repeated periods of intense fear that are objectively not dangerous.
Phobias. Persons with phobias experience an intense and commonly irrational fear from objects or situations that pose little or no actual danger.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). People with OCD experience repetitive and disturbing thoughts and actions that serve to ease anxiety. While you may be aware of the irrationality of your thoughts and actions, there is not much you can do to stop them.
Social Anxiety Disorder. This type of phobia causes a person to experience an overwhelming fear when being in social situations or going to crowded places.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD develops as a result of an earlier traumatic experience. The man symptoms of PTSD involve intense fear, nightmares and flashbacks, feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and depression.
What Causes Anxiety Disorders?
The exact cause of anxiety is unknown. However, it is believed that factors such as genetics, certain personality traits, brain chemistry, stress, and environment may contribute to anxiety.
In addition, our negative thinking patterns and cognitive distortions (false perceptions and beliefs about ourselves and the world around us) often play a role in developing anxiety.
Counseling for Anxiety
Fortunately, anxiety is a condition that can be treated with a high success rate. The most effective treatment for anxiety disorders involve:
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a short-term, goal-oriented, and evidence-based psychotherapy that focuses on dysfunctional thinking and behavior.
The core belief of cognitive-behavioral approach in anxiety counseling is that our thoughts and beliefs shape how we feel and behave. CBT has proven to be highly effective in treating generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, phobias, PTSD, and panic disorder.
CBT for anxiety can help you:
Recognize your unproductive thinking patterns
Mindfully reflect on your thoughts, emotions, physical responses, and behaviors
Develop strategies to replace negative thinking and behavior patterns with more constructive ones
Learn strategies to mitigate anxiety symptoms
Apply positive strategies to your everyday life
Cognitive-behavioral therapy combines cognitive approach and behavioral methods to help clients achieve the desired change in their thoughts, behaviors, and symptoms. The main goal of CBT is to help rewire your brain to apply the new coping strategies into your everyday life naturally.
While cognitive CBT methods aim to change your dysfunctional thinking patterns and ease emotional distress, the behavioral aspect focuses on changing behavioral symptoms of anxiety.
How Can CBT Help Overcome Anxiety?
In cognitive-behavioral anxiety counseling, the focus is on learning. This means that, during your CBT sessions, you will learn new ways of thinking and behavior and replace negative thinking patterns and behaviors with new ones.
Using Cognitive Restructuring to Change Your Thoughts
Cognitive restructuring or reframing is one of the fundamental CBT techniques that can help you let go of your cognitive distortions and other self-limiting beliefs. Namely, cognitive restructuring is founded on the idea that it is our perception of our experiences and not those experiences themselves that trigger anxiety.
Suppose you use one of the cognitive distortions known as “the mind-reading” in your thinking. In that case, you may tend to believe that you know what other people think or how they feel about you without them telling you.
Similarly, suppose you suffer from panic attacks. In that case, CBT can teach you to interpret leg numbness, dizziness, and increased heart rate in terms of anxiety symptoms rather than a sign that you have a heart attack or a stroke.
Through CBT sessions, you will learn to identify and examine your cognitive distortions. Once you learn to recognize such negative thinking patterns, you will be able to reframe them and create positive, more realistic beliefs about yourself and others.
Anxiety counseling can help you understand how your thoughts and beliefs impact your feelings, behavior, and relationships with others. Also, CBT can equip you with tools to relieve emotional distress, improve self-control, and increase resilience.
Other evidence-based practices commonly used in anxiety counseling involve journaling, mindfulness, stress-reduction techniques, role-playing, exposure therapy, and others.
Journaling in Anxiety Counseling
Journaling or expressive writing is an excellent way to get in touch with your thoughts and increase self-awareness.
For example, your therapist may ask you to write a thought diary. This would include:
Describing the anxiety-provoking situation using facts only (Who? When? What? Where?)
List all negative thoughts that occurred in the anxiety-provoking situation
Describe how did you feel in that situation
Journaling can help observe your thoughts and emotions, better understand what triggers your anxiety, identify negative thoughts, and raise self-awareness.
Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques
Mindfulness meditation has proven to be a helpful strategy in managing anxiety by reducing the amygdala’s activity.
Namely, studies show that the brain’s stress center appears to shrink after mindfulness exercise, indirectly lessening the level of stress and anxiety.
Regular mindfulness exercises can help you focus on your thoughts as they appear in your conscious mind without self-evaluation. Studies also show that mindfulness can help you relax, improve your resilience, and boost mood and optimism.
Similarly, relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, body scan, or guided imagery can help you:
Foster a sense of control
Redirect your focus away from negative thoughts
Experience own thoughts and emotions with a greater understanding of self-compassion
Role-playing is a CBT technique that can help you work through possible behaviors in potentially challenging situations. Playing out possible scenarios in your anxiety counseling sessions can reduce fear and apprehension in situations when you need to:
Familiarize yourself with an upcoming situation
Improve social skills
Improve communication skills
Enhance problem-solving skills
Exposure therapy in anxiety counseling aims to help clients overcome their fears or phobias by stopping the patterns of fear and avoidance.
This method is effectively used in the treatment of phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder. A therapist will gradually expose you to a situation or object that provokes fear during the exposure therapy sessions. Over time, you will learn to become less sensitive to an object or situation that generates anxiety.
How Effective is CBT in Treating Anxiety?
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is one of the most successful forms of anxiety counseling that uses evidence-based practices to help clients change how they think and behave.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing
Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) was developed by American psychologist Francine Shapiro in 1987 to treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
During her research, Shapiro noticed that moving her eyes from side to side helped reduce negative thoughts and feelings caused by evoking painful memories.
However, EMDR has proven helpful in treating other mental disorders such as anxiety disorders (generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, phobias), depression, and other mental illnesses.
EMDR treatment in anxiety counseling focuses on disturbing thoughts and emotions that appear when a client recalls a stressful or traumatic event rather than on the event itself. The goal of EMDR treatment is to help you perceive upsetting experiences as less disturbing.
During your EMDR session, your therapist will encourage you to recall a disturbing experience while exposing you to two-sided stimulation. This stimulation may involve:
moving your eyes from side to side
tones delivered via headphones to both ears
tapping movements on the sides of your body
Bilateral stimulation has a desensitization purpose. Therefore, your therapist will repeat it until you learn to recall the painful experience without experiencing upsetting thoughts and feelings.
How Successful is EMDR in Treating Anxiety?
Studies show high success rates of EMDR in treating PTSD symptoms. For example, clients’ reports say that eye movement desensitization and reprocessing can help relieve emotional and physical distress, boost focus and concentration, and improve sleep patterns.
In addition to anxiety counseling, your therapist may recommend various self-care strategies to incorporate into your daily lifestyle. Such self-care strategies may involve good sleep hygiene, a nutritious diet, regular exercise, affirmations, gratitude practice, spending time in nature, and similar.
Anxiety disorder can severely impair the quality of your everyday life, relationships, and overall wellbeing. However, anxiety is a highly treatable mental health condition. Therefore, it is essential to recognize your symptoms on time and seek anxiety counseling.
The type of psychotherapy for anxiety will depend on your symptoms' nature, causes, and severity. However, cognitive-behavioral therapy is considered most effective in treating anxiety disorders.
Along with anxiety counseling, various self-care activities can help manage anxiety symptoms and reclaim a happy and productive life.