Fear Factor – Managing Anxiety
About one in 13 people globally suffer from anxiety (Psychological Medicine, May 2013). It is the most common mental health issue. The expat lifestyle - with its inherent change, uncertainty, and being away from familiar support networks - may in itself cause anxiety and can be especially difficult for those prone to anxiety.
Julia Söllner is a German Psychologist and works at Body and Soul Medical Clinic. She assists clients from different cultures (adults and teenagers) who find themselves in personal or professional crisis and aim to develop out of depression, stress, anxiety, burnout, family or relationship conflicts, adjustment issues or others.
What is the difference between “normal” stress/worries and anxiety for which we might need to seek help?
Stressful situations normally make us feel worried or fearful. Mild anxiety is a normal, adaptive response to various events such as exams, public talks, and new situations that prepares us to manage them better (we get ready for the “fight”). Whenever this anxiety is too intense and/or its duration too long, it becomes overwhelming and starts affecting one’s daily life – then it is not functional anymore. It could be the beginning of an anxiety disorder, and psychological treatment might be needed.
What are the signs and symptoms of anxiety disorders?
There are many kinds of anxiety disorders, such as:
- specific phobias (intense fear of an object or situation, that is normally avoided)
- generalized anxiety (constant state of worry and fear about everyday life events)
- panic disorder (sudden feelings of terror, often mistaken for a heart attack)
- obsessive-compulsive disorder (recurrent obsessions followed by compulsions or actions to decrease anxiety)
- post-traumatic stress disorder (could appear after a severe traumatic experience)
Each anxiety disorder will have its own characteristics, but they have some common symptoms, such as:
- Recurrent intrusive thoughts
- Difficulty concentrating
- Avoiding situations
- Frequent aches and pains
- Lack of energy
- Sweating, trembling, dizziness, chest pain, palpitations
- Sleep disturbances
How does a Cognitive Behavioral Therapist treat anxiety?
When our own patterns of thinking and acting are leading us to increase or maintain anxiety, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) focuses on the thoughts, behaviors, emotions, and the interactions between them. Once these patterns are recognized, the person can consciously replace them with new functional ones.
It is important to know how anxiety affects us. Knowing why, when, how, and where anxiety starts is a necessary prior step to managing it. After working on cognitive and behavioral awareness, the patient will learn techniques to help increase their tolerance of fearful situations; for example, relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises or Jacobson relaxation.
How effective is CBT in treating anxiety?
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a science-based practice that together with medication has been proven to be one of the most effective treatments for anxiety disorders. CBT is normally (depending on the severity of the problem) a short-term therapy that allows the patient to learn more about anxiety, its symptoms and course, and coping tools. The patient gains the tools to navigate stressful situations and keep anxiety under control.
Can you share any tips for family members of someone who suffers from anxiety?
It is helpful to understand the disorder. Family members can support their loved one not only by trying to help, but by asking how to do so. Since family support can make a big difference, it is ideal for family members to be involved in treatment.
How should we react and help the person with anxiety?
When dealing with someone with high levels of anxiety, it is extremely important to be aware of our own responses and behavior. They will notice the reaction of the people around them to any event or situation and will be influenced by it. We can inadvertently cause a vicious cycle of increased anxiety or avoidance of new situations when we try to protect the person or react with our own worries. This is why it is important for the patient’s support system to also gain an understanding of anxiety and how best to support the patient.
Julia focuses her work on patients' values, beliefs and needs. She uses in-depth and systemic techniques to support the patients realize their way of thinking.
Support on how to deal with their crisis and a study of what factors might be maintaining the problem is crucial. There are several suitable techniques that can help patients prevent and control their activation. These include education on how anxiety works, relaxation techniques, cognitive restructuring, and exposure techniques.
Anxiety is likely to affect you or someone you care about at some time in your life. It is helpful to know that there are resources and tools that we can draw upon to manage anxiety.