Anxiety Disorders: Theories and Therapies

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Talking to therapistOur knowledge about successful treatment for anxiety disorders continues to advance at an accelerated rate. This progress is due to the hundreds of past and ongoing research studies. Many of these studies are dedicated to testing and developing effective treatment approaches. In fact, anxiety disorders are one of the most treatable psychiatric conditions; meaning, treatment is highly likely to produce a positive outcome (i.e., a reduction in symptoms).

Not only do we know what does work, but research has also identified what does not work. Results consistently indicate that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most effective treatment strategy for treating a variety of conditions including anxiety disorders (Deacon & Abramowitz, 2004; Norton & Price, 2007; Stewart & Chamblass, 2009). Other therapeutic strategies tend to be ineffective for anxiety disorders. This includes supportive psychotherapy (often thought of as "talk therapy") and psychodynamic/ psychoanalytic therapy. These approaches may be helpful for some issues. However, research has not demonstrated effectiveness for the symptoms of anxiety.


Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) differs from earlier therapies. Its primary focus is the present "here and now," rather than on the past. It assumes that people in recovery can make progress without having to unearth the past in order to determine the origins of their symptoms. Instead, progress occurs by recognizing, understanding, and changing dysfunctional thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. It is assumed and accepted that these dysfunctional patterns have been "learned" and reinforced during prior life experiences (the past). Nonetheless, the patterns can be "unlearned" in the present by creating new experiences.

In the final chapter, we will discuss specific treatment techniques for each anxiety disorder (Treatment for Anxiety Disorders Section). However, we find it is helpful to understand the basic theories behind these very effective treatments. We begin our discussion with the cognitive-behavioral therapeutic approach: namely, behavioral learning theory, and cognitive theory.

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