Patients Can Unlearn Reactions to Their Fears
Everyone gets nervous from time to time, but some people are anxious every day. While anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults, several effective treatments are available. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a great time highlight anxiety and its therapies.
Anxiety is based on either a negative or perceived negative experience or many experiences. The anxiety eventually fuels itself and creates a cycle where just the thought of doing the action leads to a panic attack or other symptoms caused by the anxiety, such as excessive sweating or stomach pains.
Medication and cognitive behavioral therapy are two of the most common treatments for anxiety. Medications can help lower anxiety. During cognitive behavioral therapy, patients meet with a therapist to discuss their anxiety and develop tools, such as deep breathing and challenging their anxious thoughts that can lower anxiety levels. Exposure therapy is another growing, effective option for patients with anxiety. Patients feel empowered and more confident in their ability to manage their anxiety.
During exposure therapy, clients intentionally face their fears at a gradual pace to unlearn a previous response and learn they can experience the situation with less anxiety and increased confidence. Patients learn exposure therapy from a therapist and it can be used outside of their regular session. There are several types of exposure therapy: exposure to bodily sensations such as fear about your heart racing, imaginary exposure where a patient vividly imagines and describes the fear, writing about the fear and real life exposure exercises.
For example, if someone is afraid of attending social events, she gradually exposes herself to the situation by first imagining what it would be like to attend a party, addressing her fear and learning a new response to event. She may then watch a social situation or write about being at a party and her potential response. Eventually, the goal would be to attend a social situation. When forced to confront a fear for a long enough time, the mind adapts to the stimulus that causes fear to the point where it learns to interpret a situation differently. You will have less fear and feel more confident in your ability to manage anxiety when you would have previously avoided dealing with it.
Over time, the person becomes less anxious about their fears. Research shows exposure therapy has long-term benefits in reducing anxiety.