Understanding Anxiety: What It Is and How to Treat It


Anxiety is a normal response and can be a healthy emotion. It is the body’s natural reaction to stress and can bring about a feeling of fear or apprehension about what’s to come. It can signal to you that you are in danger or in need of more support. However, when anxiety becomes overwhelming or chronic, it can interfere with daily activities and quality of life. It’s then that anxiety may be classified as a diagnosable disorder, a condition that requires attention and treatment.

What Anxiety Is

Anxiety manifests as a sense of unease, such as worry or fear, that can range from mild or severe. Common symptoms include:

  • Physical Symptoms: Increased heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating, and fatigue.
  • Emotional Symptoms: Feelings of dread, nervousness, or restlessness.
  • Behavioral Symptoms: Avoiding certain places or situations that trigger anxiety.

Anxiety disorders encompass various conditions, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, and specific phobias. Each type has its own unique characteristics but shares the common feature of excessive fear or worry. If anxiety interferes with your daily functioning, then it is beyond normal worry and stress. 

What Anxiety Isn’t

It’s crucial to distinguish between normal anxiety and an anxiety disorder. Anxiety isn’t:

  • Occasional Worry: Everyone experiences worry or fear in response to specific situations. This is a normal part of life and often resolves on its own.
  • Temporary Stress: Stress is a response to an immediate threat or challenge, whereas anxiety persists even without an obvious stressor.
  • Weakness or Character Flaw: Anxiety disorders are medical conditions, not a sign of personal weakness or failure. They result from a complex interplay of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors.

Treating Anxiety with Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is a highly effective way to treat anxiety disorders. It involves working with a trained psychologist or master’s level therapist to understand the causes of anxiety, develop coping strategies, and change unhelpful thought patterns. Here are some of the most effective psychotherapeutic approaches:

1. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is one of the most widely used therapies for anxiety disorders. It focuses on identifying and challenging negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to anxiety. Key components of CBT include:

  • Cognitive Restructuring: This involves identifying irrational or maladaptive thoughts and replacing them with more realistic and positive ones.
  • Exposure Therapy: Gradual exposure to feared situations or objects helps reduce the anxiety associated with them.
  • Skill Building: Learning coping mechanisms and problem-solving skills to manage anxiety effectively.

2. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

ACT encourages individuals to accept their thoughts and feelings rather than fighting or feeling guilty for them. It focuses on mindfulness and commitment to personal values. Key techniques include:

  • Mindfulness Practices: Developing awareness and acceptance of the present moment.
  • Values Clarification: Identifying and committing to actions that align with personal values, despite the presence of anxiety.

3. Psychodynamic Therapy

This approach explores the unconscious processes influencing behavior. It aims to uncover the root causes of anxiety, such as unresolved conflicts or past trauma. Key elements include:

  • Exploration of Past Experiences: Understanding how early life experiences and relationships contribute to current anxiety.
  • Free Association: Encouraging clients to speak freely about their thoughts and feelings to uncover unconscious patterns.

4. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

Originally developed for borderline personality disorder, DBT can also be effective for anxiety. It combines CBT principles with mindfulness techniques. Key components include:

  • Distress Tolerance: Building skills to tolerate and survive crises without making them worse.
  • Emotion Regulation: Learning to manage and change intense emotions that cause problems.

Anxiety, when persistent and overwhelming, requires careful attention and appropriate  treatment from licensed professionals. Psychotherapy can offer a range of approaches tailored to your individual needs and provide you tools and strategies to manage and reduce your anxiety. At Birchwood Clinic in Chicago, our team of psychologists and mental health counselors can help you understand the nature of your anxiety and work on appropriate treatment for it. We might also suggest medication management in conjunction with your therapy. With the right therapeutic support and help, you can overcome the debilitating effects of anxiety and lead a more fulfilling life.

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