Do you often worry without any good reason?
Do you suffer from panic attacks that make it difficult to enjoy your life?
Do you experience recurring obsessive thoughts that you just cannot get rid of?
Do you have a phobia that does not let you do certain things or go to certain places?
If your answer is yes to any of the questions above, you may suffer from an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness; it is estimated that almost every fifth person is affected by some form of an anxiety disorder in any given population, so you are definitely not alone. But you don’t have to live with anxiety and fear. Treatment is highly effective in this condition and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is particularly beneficial.
Cognitive behavioural therapy is the most widely-used therapy for anxiety disorders. Research has shown it to be effective in the treatment of panic disorder, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder, among many other conditions. It is seen that many people improve significantly within 8 to 10 sessions.
The basic idea of cognitive behavioural therapy is that the way we think, and not external events, affect our feelings and behaviours. In other words, it’s not the situation that you are in that determines how you feel and what you do, but your perception of the given situation. For example, people can be asked by their boss to do a presentation on a meeting and have very different thoughts:
Person 1: ‘That’s a great opportunity to show how hard I work here.’
Person 2: ‘I don’t know how to talk in front of other people; I’m going to make a fool of myself.’
Person 3: ‘What if they fire me if I don’t prepare the presentation the way they want me to?’
Though all three people are in the same situation, they will feel very differently about it. In cognitive behavioural therapy, we take a look at the unhelpful thoughts specific to the person and work together to change those to more helpful ones. The skill of changing our unhelpful thoughts to helpful ones needs practice to become automatic; but it is possible to master it for anyone, just like the skill to ride the bicycle.
Beside examining thoughts and learning new ways of thinking, cognitive behavioural therapy
stresses the importance of the behaviours we choose. As our everyday behaviours can become extremely habitual, it is often helpful to take a look at them with the help of an outsider person to see where changes can be made.
In the treatment of anxiety disorders, therapist and client often design behavioural experiments together to test unhelpful assumptions. For example, if a person has the assumption ‘If I ask my colleagues for help, they will think that I’m stupid’, they might never ask for help and consequently have no chance to overcome this fear. A therapist can prepare the person by practicing the necessary skills, examining the possible outcomes and exploring strategies to cope with them, designing the actual behavioural experiment that is doable for the client and drawing the right conclusions afterwards.
In addition to the above, further skills are often learned in cognitive behavioural therapy in order to ensure the best treatment outcome, such as knowing how to recognize the bodily sensations of anxiety and relaxation skills to counteract anxiety and panic.
If you feel at risk, don’t let anxiety gain power over your life. ‘Change the way you see things and the things you see will change.’