Anxiety and ACT

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is a complex and multifaceted emotional, physiological and psychological experience. It is a common human experience that can range from mild and temporary to severe and chronic. While it is normal to experience anxiety in certain situations, such as before a job interview or an important examination, excessive and persistent anxiety can significantly impact a person’s daily life and well-being. When anxiety reaches problematic levels so that it interferes with daily life, it could be described as a disorder that a person may need some help with.

The causes of anxiety disorders are multifactorial and can involve a combination of psychological, environmental and biological factors. Some individuals may have a genetic predisposition to developing anxiety disorders, while others may experience anxiety as a result of traumatic experiences, chronic stress, or certain medical conditions.

Anxiety disorders are a group of mental health conditions characterised by excessive and uncontrollable anxiety and can include generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, specific phobias, and separation anxiety disorder, among others. Each type of anxiety disorder has its unique features and diagnostic criteria, but they all share the common element of excessive and irrational fear or worry.

Core characteristics of anxiety

The symptoms of anxiety can manifest in various ways, including physical, cognitive, and behavioural symptoms. Physical symptoms may include a rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, sweating, trembling, and gastrointestinal discomfort. Cognitive symptoms can involve excessive worrying, racing thoughts, difficulty concentrating, and anticipating negative outcomes. Behavioural symptoms might include restlessness, avoidance of certain situations or places, and changes in sleep patterns.

Although anxiety can have some helpful benefits in certain circumstances, the negative consequences of excessive and chronic anxiety can profoundly affect a person’s overall well-being. Here we explore some of the positives and negative characteristics of anxiety:

 

How anxiety can help

Heightened awareness and alertness: Anxiety can increase your level of vigilance and make you more attentive to potential threats or dangers. In certain situations, this heightened state of awareness can help you stay safe and respond quickly to emergencies.
Motivation and productivity: Mild levels of anxiety can sometimes motivate individuals to perform better, as it pushes them to prepare for challenges, meet deadlines, and achieve their goals. Some people find that a certain level of anxiety helps them stay focused and perform at their best.
Problem-solving and planning: Anxiety can prompt individuals to think ahead and anticipate potential obstacles or difficulties. This may lead to more thorough problem-solving and planning, as individuals try to minimise potential risks and uncertainties.

How prolonged anxiety can hinder

Emotional distress: Anxiety can cause significant emotional distress, including feelings of fear, worry, and unease. It can lead to a constant state of apprehension, making it difficult to relax or enjoy life. Chronic anxiety can also contribute to the development of other mental health conditions, such as depression.
Impaired daily functioning: When anxiety becomes excessive and chronic, it can interfere with daily functioning. It may impact relationships, work or school performance, and overall quality of life. Anxiety disorders can lead to avoidance behaviours, making it challenging to engage in social activities, travel, or pursue personal interests.
Physical health effects: Prolonged anxiety can have negative effects on physical health. It may contribute to sleep disturbances, digestive issues, headaches, muscle tension, and weakened immune system functioning. Chronic anxiety has also been associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular problems.
Impact on relationships: Anxiety can strain relationships with family, friends, and romantic partners. It may lead to excessive reassurance-seeking, irritability, difficulty expressing emotions, and avoidance of social situations. Over time, these patterns can create tension and distance between individuals.
Reduced quality of life: Living with chronic anxiety can significantly diminish one’s overall quality of life. It can limit opportunities, restrict personal growth, and prevent individuals from fully engaging in activities they enjoy. Anxiety can create a constant sense of unease and make it challenging to experience joy, relaxation, and fulfilment.

 

It’s important to remember that while anxiety may have some potential benefits in specific situations, the negative consequences associated with excessive and chronic anxiety can have a significant impact on an individual’s well-being. If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety, it is advisable to seek professional help to manage and reduce its negative effects.

Understanding the relationship between ACT and anxiety

Treatment for anxiety typically involves a combination of psychotherapy, medication, and lifestyle modifications. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is a common therapeutic approach that helps individuals identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviours associated with anxiety. Medications may be prescribed by a professional to alleviate symptoms and manage anxiety. Additionally, lifestyle changes, including regular exercise, stress management techniques, and healthy sleep habits, can contribute to reducing anxiety levels.

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is a type of therapy that can be tailored to a person’s specific needs and preferences offering them practical skills to manage anxiety and improve their overall well-being. It is recommended to seek the guidance of a trained mental health professional who specialises in ACT to receive appropriate support and guidance in implementing this therapy for anxiety.

Here’s some ways that ACT can support people who suffer with anxiety:

  • Defusion: ACT helps individuals recognise that thoughts may not need to be always taken literally and teaches them techniques to “defuse” from anxious thoughts. This involves observing thoughts as passing mental events rather than getting caught up in their content. By learning to distance from anxious thoughts, individuals can reduce their influence and avoid getting entangled in unhelpful thinking patterns. Cognitive defusion exercises may involve using metaphors, humour, or visualisations to challenge the literal meaning and power of anxious thoughts. By defusing from thoughts and seeing them as mere mental events, individuals can reduce their impact and create space for more adaptive responses.
  • Facing anxiety head-on: ACT emphasises the identification and clarification of personal values. This values-driven approach helps individuals shift their focus from avoiding anxiety to taking action that aligns with their values, even in the presence of anxiety. This may involve gradually facing feared situations or engaging in activities that have been avoided due to anxiety. By taking these steps, individuals learn that anxiety does not have to dictate their actions and that they can live a fulfilling life despite its presence.
  • Self-compassion and acceptance: ACT therapy helps individuals develop a kind and understanding attitude toward themselves in the face of anxiety. This helps to reduce self-judgment and increase self-care, leading to improved emotional well-being. The use of mindfulness techniques helps individuals develop a non-judgmental awareness of their anxious thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. By practicing acceptance and allowing these experiences to be present without struggling against them, individuals can learn to reduce the negative impact of anxiety and develop a more compassionate relationship with their internal experiences.

Experiencing occasional anxiety is a normal part of life, and many individuals are able to manage it effectively without professional intervention. In fact, anxiety often indicates that we are engaging in activities that hold significance to us and pushing our boundaries. For instance, when we open up and show vulnerability to others, it is natural to feel a level of fear regarding potential rejection. Similarly, when undertaking challenging endeavours or tasks, it is natural to worry about the possibility of failure.

However, if anxiety becomes chronic, interferes with daily functioning, or causes significant distress, seeking help from a mental health professional is recommended. With appropriate support and treatment, individuals with anxiety disorders can find relief, improve their well-being and live fulfilling lives.

For individuals:

If you need support in managing anxiety and would like to speak to an ACT trained therapist, please visit our therapy page for further information

For professionals:

If you would like to learn more about how ACT can support people with anxiety take a look at our upcoming live training and on-demand courses. Our blog and resources are also a great place for additional reading and insight.

Upcoming live training

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3 hours (3 CE credits)
ACT for relationships

Dr Russ Harris

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Two 3 hour sessions (6 CE credits)
Mastering ACT

Robyn Walser

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4 hours (4 CE credits)
ACT for obsessive compulsive disorder

Dr. Patricia Zurita Ona

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