Albert Ellis, founder of Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy, suggested that anxiety was a, "crisis of the imagination." We can worry ourselves sick thinking about the potentially negative, or unpleasant, outcomes of a situation that hasn't happened yet. Anxiety is the uncontrolled rush of irrational thoughts that prevent us from thinking through situations. As a result we end up in a state of hyper-vigilance (fight or flight); very helpful in instances when our survival is threatened, not so much when we are standing in line at Whole Foods.
For someone that doesn't suffer from anxiety if can be tough to conceptualize what the experience is like. To assist with having more empathy and understanding I use the analogy of the duck. If you've ever seen a duck swimming on a pond, it does so with grace. It is a smooth, seemingly effortless, progression across the water. However, underneath the surface the ducks legs are paddling frantically to propel it forward. Anxiety is often like this. Individuals appear to have it together, when in reality their emotions are raging frantically. Their thoughts are future-oriented and ALWAYS predictive of some negative outcome. As outside witnesses we may experience their anxiety as resistance to engage in some activity (a friend that avoids going out), as anger (lashing out when encouraged to do something that seems positive), or as a complete breakdown over something minuscule in nature (passing out when needing to get a shot from the doctor).
For sufferers of anxiety, these anxiety attacks, or panic attacks, can be triggered by any number of things (e.g., an exam, a presentation, a dog, high places, etc.) and are scary because of the fact that we aren't usually aware of the irrational thoughts that precipitate them. The feeling suggests to us that we are in danger and can be very confusing if we cannot immediately identify any real threat. The body has the same response to a threat regardless of whether or not it was real or imagined. Untreated anxiety can evolve into a full blown phobia or other anxiety related disorder. Therefore, therapy should focus on making us aware of our irrational thinking, providing us with evidence to challenge or counter our irrationality, and teach us skills to effectively reduce our anxiety and prevent it from becoming crippling.
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