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What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a very common problem. About five per cent of the population will suffer from anxiety symptoms that are present for most of the time. Here are some of the features of anxiety symptoms:

  • Changes in physical sensations, such as palpitations, sweatiness, shaking, dizziness or nausea
  • Changes in thoughts, such as increased worrying, fretting about the risk of possible harm, fainting or even death
  • Changes in behaviours, such as greater unease and restlessness, avoiding specific situations or places
  • Changes in emotions, such as fear, desperation or a drop in mood

There are different types of anxiety problems. Anxiety can be very general and some people find that they worry for most of the time about many different things. Others are frightened about specific things, such as animals, heights, flying, germs, social situations or enclosed spaces. This form of anxiety is known as a phobia. Some people have extremely distressing and short bursts of anxiety when they worry that they cannot breathe, or will faint. This is known as a panic attack.

There is no single cause of anxiety. For some people, anxiety appears to run in the family. For others it can begin after a big life change, such as bereavement, having a baby or losing a job. Many people who have physical health problems, such as heart disease, breathing problems or pain, also experience high levels of worry and anxiety.

How CBT is used to treat anxiety

You and your therapist will discuss your specific difficulties and set goals for you to achieve. CBT is not a quick fix. It involves hard work during and between sessions. Your therapist will not tell you what to do. Instead they will help you decide what difficulties you want to work on in order to help you improve your situation. Your therapist will be able to advise you on how to continue using CBT techniques in your daily life after your treatment ends.

Some of the aims of CBT in treating anxiety and panic attacks are:

  • Teaching about the nature of anxiety and correcting misunderstandings that symptoms such as palpitations are dangerous
  • Learning techniques to tackle unhelpful thoughts which happen particularly when someone is very anxious
  • Exploring the features of worry and finding techniques to reduce the impact of worrying
  • Finding positive techniques to tackle social situations that are being avoided
  • Learning techniques to reduce the physical symptoms of anxiety

Listen to our podcasts

Let's Talk About CBT is a podcast about CBT: what it is, what it's not and how it can be useful. Dr Lucy Maddox interviews experts in the field including people who have experienced CBT for themselves. Each episode includes a mix of interviews, myth-busting and explains CBT jargon.

You can download our podcast - Coping with anxiety about coronavirus.

Other resources

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines for anxiety disorder and panic disorder in adults 

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