BEHAVIOURAL AND COGNITIVE THEORIES OF ANXIETY
John Watson, the father of behaviourism, proposed that neuroses arouse out of traumatic learning situations and then persist to influence behaviour throughout life.
‘Stimulus – response’ concept of anxiety, which emerged from this, posits that certain stimuli when associated with fear could show up an anxiety response. For e.g. if a dog bites a child, the child will respond with anxiety the next time he sees a dog. This response will occur even if the dog does not actually bite him again. Thus anxiety has a protective function here. This anxiety could become a reaction to a danger signal that was recognised to forebode a harmful situation.
So, anxiety is viewed as an unconditioned inherent response of the organism to painful or dangerous stimuli. In anxiety and phobias, this becomes attached to relatively neutral stimuli by conditioning.
Systematic desensitization: The principle of reciprocal inhibition (i.e. anxiety and relaxation cannot coexist) is the core of this.
Systematic graded exposure to the source of anxiety is coupled with the use of relaxation techniques (the ‘desensitisation’ component).
Flooding/implosive therapy: The high levels of anxiety cannot be maintained for long periods, and a process of ‘exhaustion’ occurs. By exposing the patient to the phobic object and preventing the usual escape or avoidance, there is extinction of the usual anxiety response.
Anxiety and Cognitive performance
The cognitive model of anxiety postulates that anxious individuals invariably exaggerate the level of threat in a given situation. So, there is evidence of selective information processing (with more attention paid to threat related information), negative automatic thoughts and perception of decreased control over internal and external stimuli.
Cognitive behavioural modification or CBM developed from this approach helps in treatment of anxiety resulting from inadequate coping skills. It aims to ‘change the way you feel, by changing the way you think’.
Anxiety and rational thinking
Albert Ellis developed a treatment technique based on rational thinking in 1955. Several research studies have confirmed the relationship between anxiety and negative / irrational thinking.
The RET (Rational emotive therapy) belief holds that individual’s own thoughts and beliefs about difficulties create negative emotions as anxiety. The individual’s reaction towards a situation is based on his set of beliefs and attitudes. So, the patients are taught to identify, challenge, and change their irrational beliefs which maintain and justify their anxiety. After all, anxiety, by definition is not attributable to sources of real danger and is as such irrational.