Anxiety disorders: how to face your fears?

“Why do some people have a mental illness? “

This is one of the most common questions psychologists, and other mental health care providers hear.

Cautious, even concerned with accuracy, many specialists will assert that “no one knows”. This is the simple answer to this question. Others will speak briefly about the role of neurobiological mechanisms.

That said, laboratory work over the past decades has allowed psychologists to gradually gain a better understanding of the development and persistence of mental illnesses – and more particularly of those associated with anxiety.

We all experience anxiety from time to time. This emotion is essential to our survival. On the other hand, in some people, it has incapacitating effects. As we now know, factors other than biological processes deserve special attention to modeling and treating anxiety disorders. Note that we are not referring here to unconscious or psychoanalytic processes!

The repercussions of automatic thoughts on feeling

Occupying a prominent place in the avant-garde psychological literature, the cognitive-behavioral theory explains anxiety disorders’ emergence and persistence. It is very easy to understand. According to this theoretical view, the thoughts that automatically come to our mind in a given situation influence the emotions we experience at that time. Likewise, feeling affects the behavior and decisions we make in this situation.

If someone arrives at a party thinking, “As soon as I open my mouth, everyone will notice how stupid I am” (thought), they will probably feel very anxious (emotion). Presumably, he will decide to stay in his corner, speak only to people he knows, or leave (behavior). This example shows what often happens to people with social phobia.

Likewise, at the sight of a dog, a cynophobic person will automatically think that the animal will attack him for sure (thought). This thought will trigger fear in her (emotion) and exacerbate her desire to run away from the dog (behavior).

In both examples, this avoidance (of the reception or the animal) sustains these irrational thoughts and anxiety.

You might be wondering why some people fear they will be found stupid at a party while others fear being bitten by a dog. Of course, some love to attend receptions and those who pet every dog ​​they see walking by on the street.

The cognitive-behavioral theory provides the answer to this question.

Beliefs: the idea we have of ourselves, of others, and the world

In a specific situation, automatic thoughts sometimes appear to appear out of nowhere. There is nothing random about this thought pattern.

According to psychology, everyone has their own beliefs about their identity, others, and the world’s functioning and its many components. Thus, the person who has a positive image of himself (“I am lovable”) will probably adapt well. Also, this belief will help him to evolve effectively in society.

On the other hand, the one who expresses irrational and negative beliefs in his regard (“I am stupid”) will tend to have automatic thoughts like “it is enough that I open the mouth for one to realize my stupidity”. Therefore, mental illness development and persistence seem to stem from the irrational beliefs that people hold.

When we know the particular beliefs that a person has, we better understand why they suffer from a particular anxiety disorder. For example, the idea that “flying is not a safe mode of transportation” likely underlies a case of aviophobia. Likewise, the belief “I am stupid” may correlate to the presence of social phobia symptoms in a patient. Simultaneously, the perception that “uncertainty is a danger” usually explains why another is anxious about absolutely everything. Generalized anxiety).

In the case of anxiety disorders, no matter their beliefs, most patients rate the likelihood of an apprehended outcome occurring as higher than it is (“a spider will likely pounce on I “). At the same time, they generally believe that their ability to cope with the apprehended outcome is less than it is (“if a spider climbs on top of me, I will be unable to get rid of it”).

However, the origin of such beliefs remains unclear. Sometimes a patient will formulate their hypothesis (“When I was a child I always saw my mother running away when a dog approached”). However, it is important to understand that most of us hold many negative beliefs to some extent. Therefore, other factors – such as a genetic predisposition to experience high anxiety – likely interact with these beliefs and cause debilitating symptoms.

Beyond theory, science

Why are psychologists convinced that beliefs play a crucial role in the development and persistence of anxiety disorders? The answer to this question is very simple: science. Performing laboratory research allows theories to be tested and refined. As proof, the work carried out on cognitive-behavioral theory shows that if we make a (healthy) subject believe that a person with anxiety disorders believe, the subject will feel the symptoms associated with such disorders.

In an experiment, I “manipulated” beliefs about losing control. I suggested to participants that they were very likely to lose control of their thoughts and behavior. Then, I made other subjects believe the opposite.

Participants led to believe they were at risk of losing control performed more verification rites. It is important to note that cognitive-behavioral theory states that beliefs about the loss of control contribute to the development of the obsessive-compulsive disorder and that compulsive checking is the most common symptom of the same disorder!

Therefore, this experience confirms the importance of beliefs in the development of anxiety-related problems. Of course, this type of research subsequently allows the psychologist to address these beliefs in the clinic and help his patient with anxiety disorders.

Treat anxiety disorders

Based on the theory and scientific support described above, it would seem logical for the clinician to identify their irrational beliefs when attempting to find treatment for their anxiety disorders.

This is one of the components of cognitive-behavioral therapy. For example, the patient may be asked to conduct a small science experiment. More precisely, the subject will expose himself to the objects or the situations which make him anxious, then will compare his predictions (potentially irrational) to the reality of the facts.

Thus, little by little, the patient questions his anchored beliefs and acquires new knowledge about himself and others, even about the world. It is known that the person with an anxiety disorder deliberately avoids the object of his anxiety. For example, someone who has social phobia will refrain from attending receptions, which will prevent her from gleaning “real” information on her fears.

Although the approach may be frightening, Medication Therapy Management is the treatment par excellence for anxiety-related problems.

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