Why Therapy For Anxiety Disorder Works
In the article, “System Of Beliefs,” we explained how we construct our personal operating system (System Of Beliefs - SOB) and how it influences our behavior (thoughts and actions).
In the article, “Beliefs And Anxiety Disorder,” we explained how our SOB is made up of opinions, and how these opinions drive our decisions and actions (behavior). We also explained how behaving the same way over and over again can become automatic and seeming innate due to habituation (repetition and reinforcement).
Moreover, we explained that, because our SOB is made up of personal opinions, we can have Beliefs, Values, and Preferences that are and aren’t true/healthy even though we might think all of them are true/healthy. And, that many of these untrue/unhealthy elements are the reasons we behave overly apprehensively.
We also explained in order to make healthy change, we need to identify and successfully address those untrue/unhealthy Beliefs, Values, and Preferences and replace them with true/healthy elements so that their influences result in healthy behavior rather than anxious behavior. Here’s why:
Research has shown that 80 percent of our SOB is formed by the age of eight years old, and 90 percent of that is influenced directly or indirectly by our parents (or those who raise us). Therefore, if you grew up in a family where one or both parents behaved apprehensively (anxious, worried, fretful, over reacted, over protective, passive, etc.) you had a good chance of developing a similar SOB and resulting behaviors.
Keep in mind that since our SOB is made up of personal opinions, just because one or both parents behaved anxiously doesn’t mean we would. It just means it increases the likelihood. Many of us have come away from our developmental years with different opinions than our parents because we arrived at different conclusions – our personal opinions are formed based on the personal conclusions we arrive at.
Arriving at different conclusions is also the reason why you can have siblings that don’t have anxiety issues yet you do. It all comes down to what conclusions you made during your developmental years versus the ones they made.
This is also the reason why some people develop anxiety issues early in life while others later - it depends on when our personal sensitivities to danger are stirred up.
Nevertheless, we behave apprehensively because we have elements in our SOB that are overly sensitive to adversity, uncertainty, and risk. These elements heavily influence us to cope in overly apprehensive ways. It’s this overly apprehensive behavior that sets us on the road to anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorder: when anxiety and its symptoms interfere with a normal lifestyle.
To reduce and eliminate anxiety issues, we need to address apprehensive behavior at its source: behavior (the ways we think and act in overly apprehensive ways). We do that by addressing the untrue/unhealthy elements in our SOB.
To illustrate this, I (Jim Folk) introduce you to Michael. Michael grew up in what he calls a ‘normal’ home where both his mother and father were worriers, but not overly. He remembers his mom and dad always telling him to watch out for danger so that he wouldn’t get hurt.
As Michael was growing up, he frequently heard, “Michael, don’t play so rough or you could get hurt.” Or, “Michael, don’t wave that toy around because you might bang someone on the head and we’ll then have to go to the hospital.” Or, “Don’t bang on the window or it could break, badly slice your arm, and we’ll have to rush you to the hospital for stitches.” And so on.
He was also frequently instructed, “Always look both ways before you cross the street so that you don’t get run over by a car and killed.” And, “Never talk to strangers because they could kidnap you and we’d never see you again.” And, “Don’t do that! What will the neighbors think?” And so on.
For many of us, this sounds like a normal part of growing up. But when Michael developed anxiety issues and symptoms at twenty one years of age, he couldn’t figure out why. He only learned he had anxiety issues when he searched the Internet for his symptoms and discovered they were caused by anxiety. When he went to his doctor, his doctor confirmed Michael’s suspicions when his doctor agreed that Michael’s symptoms were caused by anxiety.
This is an all too common scenario. Many people only find out they have issues with anxiety when their bodies start producing unusual symptoms and they search to find out why.
Even though Michael learned he was dealing with anxiety issues, he struggled with anxiety and its symptoms for four more years before he decided to seek professional help. Since he didn’t understand anxiety and why it produced persistent symptoms, he had no idea how to deal with his anxiety issues and symptoms. Since his self-help efforts provided little help, he started therapy. Immediately, it all began to make sense.
Michael’s therapist, first, helped Michael understand what anxiety is. He, then, explained why anxiety can cause the many symptoms Michael experienced. He next helped Michael discover his anxious behaviors and explained why he had them. From that point on, they worked together to change those untrue/unhealthy elements to true/healthy elements. Consequently, when Michael’s untrue/unhealthy elements were addressed, Michael’s overly apprehensive behavior ceased, which eliminated his issues with anxiety.
Here’s one example of how that was done.
While Michael thought he had a ‘normal’ childhood and upbringing, his therapist pointed out that while Michael’s parents were just trying to protect him from harm, they did it in an overly anxious way. This overly apprehensive manner caused Michael to arrive at a number of conclusions about interacting in the world. These conclusions shaped a part of Michael’s SOB. Here is an example:
When Michael was repeatedly told to watch out for things that could cause him harm and how serious that harm could be, he arrived at the conclusion, “I need to always be on the lookout for danger or else something very serious could happen.” This conclusion, immediately became a part of Michael’s Beliefs in his SOB. Once it was formed, his thoughts and actions were influenced by it.
Sure, that statement seems logical and innocent enough. But the consequences of having that as a belief statement in his SOB ended up causing Michael to be constantly surveilling for danger and imagining the worst. What else could a child do if he didn’t want to end up being hurt, or worse, killed, as his parents constantly reminded him.
Unfortunately, constantly surveilling for danger and imagining the worst is the perfect recipe for being a worrier. The more he worried as a youth, the more prevalent worry became as a young adult. Worry is a type of apprehensive behavior. Through repetition and reinforcement, worry became automatic and seemingly instinctual.
Once Michael’s therapist pointed out the connection between Michael’s overly worried approach to life, where it came from, and why, Michael was able to see the reason for his anxiety. That was step one.
The next step was to explain why a different approach to parenting would have produced a different outcome in Michael’s SOB and resulting behavior. For example, Michael’s therapist modeled healthy parenting when it comes to risk. His therapist explained that rather than warning the child about every potential danger, and then, pointing out the worst possible outcome should Michael not be careful, a healthy parent would let the child figure that out for himself, unless the situation was truly dangerous. Typically, there aren’t that many truly dangerous situations a young child can encounter when he has responsible parents.
Rather than warning the child about every possible harm and serious outcome, such as playing rough, let him play. If he hurts himself, he’ll quickly learn moderation. Young children generally don’t play rough enough to cause serious harm. It’s better to let a child figure things out on his own rather than constantly warning him of danger and how serious it could be. Letting him figure things out on his own teaches him containment and self-soothing, both important for healthy living.
Yes, there are some serious things parents need to watch out for. But that’s their job, not the child’s. Parents can do that by being proactive about where the child plays, what he plays with, who he plays with, and so on. Parents can also let a child know what is and what isn’t acceptable behavior without warning the child of every worst possible outcome.
For example, if a young child (6 months to two years old) is banging on a glass window with her hand, it’s unlikely the glass is going to break. So warning the child that the glass could break, slice her arm, and will need to be rushed to the hospital for stitches is overkill and unnecessary. In this situation, all a parent would need to do is ask the child not to bang on the glass and then divert her attention to something away from the window. This let’s the child know banging on the glass is unacceptable behavior and without the threat of serious harm. This approach removes the constant threats and imagining worst-case scenario outcomes, which are generally the motivations that lead to worry.
Teaching a child about adversity, uncertainty, and risk in healthy ways and without portraying disastrous results helps the child to cope with life in healthy ways rather than overly apprehensive ways. If Michael had had that type of parenting, he would have arrived at far less anxious belief statements than he has now. As a result, he wouldn’t be exhibiting overly apprehensive behavior.
Parents who constantly warn their children of danger and the possible severity of it are anxious themselves, which is why they parent in an anxious way. But this parenting style influences how a child constructs his SOB. This is why anxiety often runs in families. Not because of some biological, chemical, or genetic trait, but because of learned and passed on behavior.
Once Michael understood the connection between how he was raised, how he constructed his SOB, and how his SOB was motivating his overly apprehensive behavior, the next step was to learn what a healthy approach to adversity, uncertainty, and risk is.
There are a lot of ways to do this. Because each person has a uniquely constructed SOB, Michael’s therapist used techniques that resonated with him. As a result, Michael was able to replace his untrue/unhealthy belief statement with, “I don’t need to be overly watchful about everything and worst-case scenarios seldom occur. If they do, I'll cope with them and things will be okay. I don’t always have to be on alert for danger. There are many things I can trust will be okay.”
This more relaxed belief statement resulted in Michael being less worried. As a result, less anxious. Sure, making this transition took effort, encouragement, time, and patience. But eventually Michael fully adopted that healthier approach to life, which caused this part of his overly apprehensive behavior to diminish.
This is only ONE element in Michael’s SOB that needed work. There were many more. But as each one was addressed, the combined sum of that work led Michael to a healthy, non anxious approach to life overall. In addition to overcoming his anxiety issues, Michael’s work with his therapist also made his life more satisfying, his relationships more real and satisfying, his life experience authentic and peaceful, and his overall life more rewarding.
When we change the untrue/unhealthy elements in our SOB, our entire life experience changes. The more work we do, the better off we are.
Therapy works because it addresses the core issues at the root of problematic anxiety – those untrue/unhealthy statements in our SOB that heavily influence our apprehensive behavior. When you identify and address those, we can eliminate issues with anxiety. As we change our SOB, we change our behaviors.
There are a great many core issues at the root of anxiety disorder. These generally interact with each other, which can cause anxiety issues to become stubborn. But as a person works through each issue, they fall like dominos. The end result is a true/healthy approach to life…and so much more.
Therapy works because it gets to the heart of problematic anxiety. When you eliminate the core of the problem, the problem and its symptoms disappear.
This is why the most effective way to deal with anxiety disorder is with the combination of good self-help information and therapy delivered by an experienced anxiety disorder therapist who understands and knows how to identify and successfully overcome the core issues at the root of problematic anxiety.
This, and this work alone, is how to overcome anxiety disorder if you desire lasting results.
For more information:
The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder coach, counselor, or therapist is the most effective way to address anxiety disorder and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - the underlying factors that motivate apprehensive behavior - a struggle with anxiety disorder can return again and again. Identifying and successfully addressing anxiety's underlying factors is the best way to overcome problematic anxiety.
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Authors: Jim Folk, Marilyn Folk, BScN. Last updated January 1, 2019.