How to cure anxiety

Roger Dobson

If anxiety is a behaviour you have learned, is it possible to 'unlearn' it?

Researchers have discovered that they can train the minds of people suffering with anxiety to worry much less. After just seven sessions with a computer-based word association test, those taking part were found to have far fewer anxiety symptoms in their everyday life. The research team says it's the first time retraining therapy like this has been tried on people with anxiety, and it works simply by getting patients to focus on positive rather than negative words.

Anxiety is a major and growing health problem. According to research at Sydney University, 18.5% of women and 10.4% of men will suffer from one anxiety disorder or another at some time in their lives. As well as so-called generalised anxiety itself, they may suffer with panic disorder, phobias, or similar conditions. And a recent survey conducted in the UK by the Mental Health Foundation suggests that as many as seven million adults are suffering from anxiety in one form or another.

What is anxiety?

Everyone is anxious at some time, especially faced with a frightening or threatening event, like a visit to the doctor or hospital, or an examination, or a driving test. And there is some evidence that anxiety is a natural response that has evolved to help humans cope with threats. It’s thought to be part of the so-called 'fight or flight response', and serves to prepare the body for action, either to fight the danger or run away, by triggering physiological changes including a tensing of muscles ready for action and a faster heartbeat to get more blood flowing to the brain and muscles.

Can't stop worrying

In most people, the anxiety levels soon drop back to normal, but some men and women have permanently high levels of anxiety. They anticipate problems, run to meet disasters, and worry excessively about most things, including health. For them, that slight chest pain becomes a heart attack, a cough, a sign of lung cancer and a dry eye heralds imminent blindness.

Anxiety symptoms

Generalised anxiety disorder is usually diagnosed where there has been excessive worrying about everyday problems for at least six months. People with the condition often have an inability to relax, find concentrating difficult, and are easily startled, and they may also experience sleep problems, headaches, trembling, irritability, sweating and breathlessness.

The causes of anxiety are not fully understood, and there are probably a number of factors, including genes and early environment. It has also been suggested that in people with general anxiety, there may be an imbalance in levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin which are involved in mood.

Anxiety and medication

A wide range of treatments are available for anxiety, and according to the US National Institutes of Health, there are currently more than 1,500 clinical trials underway worldwide into therapies for the condition.

Most treatments available, and on trial, are either medications or so-called talking therapy or counselling. Drug therapies, which will not cure anxiety disorders, but which can keep symptoms under control, include tranquillisers, antidepressants, and beta-blockers.

Cognitive treatments

Of the non-drug treatments, cognitive behavioural therapy is one of the most effective with research suggesting that more than half of people with general anxiety can benefit from up to 20, one-hour sessions recommended. It works by helping sufferers to identify that their worrying is irrational and teaches them to react more positively,

The learning experience

One theory about general anxiety is that feeling anxious may be a learned response, a trait that is picked up early on in life. Families who tend to see the world as a hostile and fearful place, for example, may be more likely to have offspring who are anxious.

The new treatment, pioneered by psychologists from Florida and two other US universities, is based on the idea that if it is a learned behaviour, it can be un-learned.

A glass half-empty 

It is known that highly anxious men and women tend to pay more attention to negative things than to positive ones. They are the people who believe that every silver lining has a dark cloud, and see half full glasses as half empty.

In the research, the psychologists designed a new type of therapy for people diagnosed as severe worriers. It involved each individual sitting in front of a computer screen that displayed a series of words on a black screen. Two words at a time were presented for less than a second, one above the other, so that they competed for attention. One of the words was a threatening word and the other was neutral.

Curing anxiety

The theory was that the eyes of people with high levels of anxiety would focus first on the negative word, and the goal of the therapy was to get them to home in on the neutral word. To do that, the men and women were told that after the words were displayed, there would be a flashing probe in the space where one of the words had been, and they had to press a button as soon as they spotted it.

The probe almost always appeared where the neutral word had been, and in each session the threat and neutral words appeared in the same position. As a result, the men and women learned to ignore the threat words and focus on the neutral words.

Not only did the anxious people focus on the non-negative words during the test sessions, but there was a remarkable carry over effect on anxiety generally. One week after the last session, various tests for anxiety and depression symptoms in daily life, were carried out, and those who had the active treatment had significantly greater improvement compared with those who had been given a sham therapy.

"The size of the effect suggests that such retraining may have considerable promise in generalised anxiety," say the researchers.

Anxiety conditions

  • General anxiety: Exaggerated worry and tension, even when there is little or nothing to provoke it.
  • Phobia: intense, irrational fear of something that actually poses little or no threat.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder: Sufferers have persistent upsetting thoughts or obsessions and use rituals or compulsions to control the anxiety these thoughts produce.
  • Social anxiety: overwhelmingly anxiety and excessive self-consciousness in everyday social situations, and an intense, persistent fear of being watched and judged by others.
  • Panic Disorder: sudden attacks of terror, with symptoms including pounding heart, sweatiness, weakness, faintness or dizziness.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder: develops after a terrifying ordeal that involved physical harm or the threat of physical harm.

Medications and talking therapy

  • Antihistamines: used to treat anxiety in the short-term basis, and work by having a calming effect on the brain, helping to lower anxiety.
  • Buspirone: a new type of drug, it’s not entirely clear how it works, although it may act on the mood brain chemical serotonin.
  • Beta blockers: can help with physical symptoms of anxiety including sweating and palpitations.
  • Anti-depressants: selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (such as Prozac) increase levels of serotonin to lift mood.
  • Venlafaxine: another anti-depressant, it works by increasing the amount of serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain, correcting the chemical imbalance that may be involved in general anxiety.
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy: The cognitive side involves assessing the reasoning behind people's thinking, on the basis that incorrect thinking results in abnormal reactions. The behavioural therapy is designed to change behaviour.


  • Regular exercise: Thirty minutes a day helps combat stress and release tension and increases levels of the brain mood chemical serotonin.
  • Learn to relax: If you find it difficult, try to find an absorbing hobby or take up yoga or pilates.
  • Diet: Too much caffeine can increase levels of anxiety.
  • Smoking and alcohol: Both linked to a worsening of anxiety.
  • Anxiety diary: Keeping an hourly diary of anxiety levels can help you focus on situations that make you anxious.
  • Distraction: Try to take your mind off symptoms and they may often disappear. Research suggests that after focusing on something else for at least three minutes symptoms will begin to reduce.
  • Breathing: People who become anxious tend to breathe quickly, which can bring on feelings of dizziness and make the anxiety worse. Try to control your breathing.

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