An anxiety disorder is much more than being very nervous or edgy.
An anxious person will report an unreasonable exaggeration of threats, repetitive negative thinking, hyper-arousal, and a strong identification with fear. The fight-or-flight response kicks into overdrive.
Anxiety is also known for producing noticeable physical symptoms, such as rapid heartbeat, high blood pressure, and digestive problems. In General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Social Anxiety Disorder (SAD) the symptoms become so severe that normal daily functioning becomes impossible.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a common treatment for anxiety disorders. Cognitive-behavioral therapy theorizes that in anxiety disorders, the patient overestimates the danger of disruptive events in his life, and underestimates his ability to cope. CBT attempts to replace maladaptive thinking by examining the patient’s distorted thinking and resetting the fight-or-flight response with more reasonable, accurate ones. The anxious person and the therapist work to actively change thought patterns.
In contrast, instead of changing thoughts, mindfulness-based therapies (MBTs) seek to change the relationship between the anxious person and his or her thoughts.
In mindfulness-based therapy, the person focuses on the bodily sensations that arise when he or she is anxious. Instead of avoiding or withdrawing from these feelings, he or she remains present and fully experiences the symptoms of anxiety. Instead of avoiding distressing thoughts, he or she opens up to them in an effort to realize and acknowledge that they are not literally true.
Although it may seem counter-intuitive, fully realizing the experience of anxiety enables anxious people to release their over identification with negative thoughts. The person practices responding to disruptive thoughts, and letting these thoughts go.
By remaining present in the body, they learn that the anxiety they experience is merely a reaction to perceived threats. By positively responding to threatening events instead of being reactive they can overcome an erroneous fight-or-flight response.
At the University of Bergen in Norway, Vollestad, Nielsen, and Nielsen surveyed 19 studies of the effectiveness of MBTs on anxiety. They found that MBTs are associated with robust and substantial reductions of anxiety symptoms. MBTs proved as effective as CBT, and are generally less expensive.
The researchers also found that MBTs are successful in reducing symptoms of depression. This is especially important since major depressive disorder affects 20 to 40 percent of people with GAD and SAD.
The study finds the success of MBTs notable “given that these approaches put less emphasis on the removal of symptoms as such, and more emphasis on cultivating a different relationship to distressing thoughts, feelings, and behavioral impulses. It seems that this strategy paradoxically could lead to less distress.”
In other words, a way to reduce the symptoms of anxiety is to be fully, mindfully, anxious. As anxiety reveals itself to be a misperception, symptoms will dissipate.
Vollestad, Nielsen, and Nielsen (2011). Mindfulness and acceptance-based interventions for anxiety disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis.