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The Yerkes-Dodson Performance Curve
Anxiety is not always a bad thing. A little bit of anxiety is necessary to do well on tests, for example, as researchers Yerkes and Dodson discovered decades ago. But if you suffer from an anxiety disorder - you are off the curve.
Next to depression, anxiety is the most common type of mental disorder. Generalized anxiety disorder is characterized by vague worries and anxiety throughout the day. The anxiety may attach itself to many different thoughts and occurrences without any apparent rationale, and it often disturbs sleep. If you suffer from generalized anxiety, you may have fearful responses to a large number of things, and the issues that preoccupy you may change from day to day or even minute to minute.
On the other hand, if you suffer from panic attacks you may feel fine most of the day, but have dramatic episodes of anxiety that can include shortness of breath, a feeling of suffocation, rapid heartbeat and pulse, and chest pains. In fact, panic attacks can be so frightening many people seek treatment in hospital emergency rooms, thinking they are having a heart attack - only to be told that there is no physical cause for these symptoms. Attacks can occur regularly, and may or may not have clear "triggers".
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is characterized by intrusive, fearful thoughts, and compulsive, ritualistic behaviors designed to "ward off" harm. Someone suffering from OCD may feel compelled to perform elaborate rituals, like repeatedly washing their hands, or ordering everything in a very specific way, to feel safe. Other rituals may be much more subtle, involving only tiny movements or even thoughts. Eventually, the OCD sufferer may severely limit their life in order to avoid fear-provoking situations. Phobias are fears of specific things or activities; the most common are fear of public speaking and fear of flying. Both OCD and certain phobias can lead to agoraphobia, a disorder in which the agoraphobic person restricts their activities in order to avoid anxiety- producing places, objects or activities, until eventually they cannot leave home.
No matter what form your anxiety takes, treatments include several elements. Behavior therapy -specific behavioral protocols- target the symptoms; insight therapy helps you understand where the anxiety came from; and relapse prevention techniques teach you how to avoid the return of fear. In some cases, EMDR is the treatment of choice. Therapy for anxiety can be very brief if the fears are very specific, or last longer if the problem is more pervasive.
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