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CBT Techniques for Anxiety

Instructor: Karin Gonzalez

Karin has taught middle and high school Health and has a master's degree in social work.

In this lesson, you will learn the definitions of anxiety and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). You will also be given details of five CBT techniques that therapists use to treat anxiety.

What is Anxiety?

It's completely normal to feel nervousness or apprehension before taking a big test or giving a big speech. Unfortunately, some people feel this stress and fear in many aspects of their life. Anxiety is a mental state that involves feelings of nervousness, tension, uneasiness and fear.

Anxiety can reach the point where it negatively impacts ones life and becomes debilitating.
Image of anxious girl

Although a mental state, anxiety can cause physical symptoms such as shortness of breath and panic attacks, increased heart rate, and sweating. Anxiety can negatively impact one's life in terms of occupation, relationships, and level of happiness. CBT is the most popular form of therapy that is used to treat anxiety disorders.

What is CBT?

CBT or cognitive behavioral therapy, is a form of mental health treatment that involves analyzing the link between a person's thoughts, feelings, and behavior. For a person with anxiety, for example, a therapist may help the individual realize that simply changing his negative fear-inducing thought process can promote more calming feelings.

Simply changing fearful thoughts into more positive ones can help treat anxiety.
Image of anxious girl

For example, Myra is extremely afraid of driving after seeing an accident happen right in front of her eyes a couple of years ago. She thinks that every time she gets into a car, she will get into a car accident. Myra's therapist helps her see that this is an irrational thought because she has driven hundreds, if not thousands, of times without getting into an accident.

Myra's therapist helps her change her thinking from, 'I will get into a car accident' to 'I probably will be just fine because I've never had an accident and have been driving for 20 years.' This is the basis of CBT for anxiety, but there are many other techniques that can be used.

CBT Techniques for Anxiety

The premise remains the same with the following activities. It revolves around changing thought processes and behaviors so that the feeling of anxiety will subside in the individual. Here are some common CBT techniques that are used to treat anxiety in therapy:

Behavioral Experiments

Janice felt anxious before going to parties because she knew that she would have to speak to people, which made her very nervous. Janice had two parties to attend that weekend, so her therapist asked her to do a behavioral experiment. For the first party, Janice was asked to keep the same negative thought patterns (i.e. 'people will not like me') as usual.

But for the second party, Janice was asked to change her thoughts to more positive ones. While getting ready, Janice recited positive thoughts (i.e. 'people will love me for my fun and unique personality). Janice took a mental note of how this changed her experience of anxiety at the party. To her and her therapist's pleasant surprise, she was a lot less anxious at the second party.

Pleasant Activity Scheduling

Anxiety can be quite debilitating, and it can make the individual that is experiencing it lack confidence. Pleasant activity scheduling is where an individual writes down seven things he wants to try that are pleasurable (but not unhealthy), and that he wouldn't usually do. His goal will be to do one of these things each day for a week. This is especially helpful for depression.

But there is another version of this technique that can be helpful for anxiety. Tim was feeling very anxious about speaking to people. This was really affecting his self-esteem and confidence. His therapist asked him to try one new thing for the next seven days that makes him feel accomplished and competent. After the seven days, Tim not only felt more confident, he had taken up a new hobby of carpentry, which helped him immensely with his stress and anxiety.

Thought Records

Wilma, a college student, had the thought that none of her teachers liked her. Wilma's therapist asked her to write that negative thought down, and through the course of the week, record evidence supporting and negating this theory. After a week of smiles and positive comments from teachers, Wilma realized that her teachers had actually done and said multiple things that proved her theory wrong.

Situational Exposure Hierarchies

This is a big CBT technique for individuals with anxiety. It's a type of systematic desensitization. Colin had a huge fear of heights that was negatively affecting him because he would avoid taking the shortcut to work (that only takes 15 minutes) so that he could avoid the high bridge on the way to work. His long route took him an extra 45 minutes.

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