Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 18 percent of the adult population, or more than 40 million people, according to the National Institutes of Health. Among adolescents the prevalence is even higher: 25 percent of youth ages 13 to 18 live with some type of anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders are often coupled with sleeplessness, depression, panic attacks, racing thoughts, headaches or other physical issues. Anxiety can run in families and be a lifelong challenge that spills over into all facets of life, from relationships and parenting to the workplace.
The good news is that anxiety disorders are manageable, and counselors have a plethora of tools to help clients lessen the impact of anxiety. Caitlyn McKinzie Bennett, a licensed mental health counselor, says she regularly talks this through with her clients at her private practice in Orlando, Florida. She often uses an analogy of ocean waves with clients: Anxiety comes in waves, and managing the disorder means learning coping tools and strategies to help surf those waves rather than expecting the waves to disappear entirely.
“Anxiety can be a long-term thing,” says Bennett, who is also a doctoral student in counselor education at the University of Central Florida. “With clients, I try and explain that [anxiety] is the body’s response that something’s not right — based off of what’s happened to you [such as past trauma] or what’s happening currently. Then we can work to accept it, cope and be happier in your life. Some things you can’t necessarily get rid of in their entirety, and that’s OK. It’s learning to be you and have a fulfilling life with anxiety, where you’re able to feel anxious and [still] be productive and be a mother, a student, a partner. I try and normalize that [anxiety is] going to come and go. It’s OK, and it’s human.”
Anxiety doesn’t happen in isolation
Everyone experiences anxiety from time to time, such as worry over an upcoming work responsibility, school exam or first date. Anxiety disorders, however, are marked by worry and racing thoughts that become debilitating and interfere with everyday functioning.
“It’s a normal part of life to experience occasional anxiety,” writes the Anxiety and Depression Association of America on its website (ADAA.org). “But you may experience anxiety that is persistent, seemingly uncontrollable and overwhelming. If it’s an excessive, irrational dread of everyday situations, it can be disabling. When anxiety interferes with daily activities, you may have an anxiety disorder.”
A number of related issues fall under the heading of anxiety disorders in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), including specific phobia, panic disorder, separation anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and others. According to the DSM-5, anxiety disorders “include disorders that share features of excessive fear and anxiety and related behavioral disturbances. Fear is the emotional response to real or perceived imminent threat, whereas anxiety is anticipation of future threat.”
Racing thoughts, rumination and overthinking possibilities — from social interactions to decision-making — are central to anxiety. In addition, people with anxiety often struggle with insomnia or sleeplessness and physical symptoms such as a racing heart, sweaty palms and headaches, says Bennett, an American Counseling Association member who is currently leading a study for her doctoral dissertation on the effects of neurofeedback training on college students with anxiety. Adolescents sometimes turn to self-harming behaviors such as cutting or hair pulling to cope with anxiety. In adults and adolescents, anxiety can manifest in physiological issues such as stomachaches or irritable bowel syndrome.Although adults may channel their anxiety into physical problems, they’re also generally much more capable than adolescents and children of identifying and articulating the anxious thoughts, ruminations and social struggles that they’re facing, Bennett says.
Bennett worked with a 14-year-old female client whose anxiety had manifested as the behaviors of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), including avoiding the number six, leaving her closet door open a certain way and struggling with crossing thresholds. Bennett worked with the client to identify her triggers and find coping mechanisms, such as connecting with friends and her Christian faith.
“A big part of her improvement was creating the awareness of what was happening,” Bennett says. “Typically there’s a large, irrational fear. With her, she was afraid that her mom was going to die. She would focus on it so much that it would cause her to start the [OCD] behavior. … For her, it felt so real. It was so scary for her that she felt compelled to do these behaviors to keep her mom alive, so to speak.”
Bennett worked with the young client to confront her fears in small doses through exposure therapy, such as listening to a song at volume level six and talking through how she felt afterward. This method allowed Bennett to first address the client’s OCD behaviors and then — once trust was built and the client had progressed — move on to work through the bigger, deeper issue of her fear of her mother’s death.
“It helped her to feel safe enough and have the confidence to work through some smaller things and move on to work on bigger things,” Bennett says. “For her it was talking it out, normalizing that for her and drawing attention to [her anxious behaviors].”
Christopher Pisarik is an associate professor in the Division of Academic Enhancement at the University of Georgia and a licensed professional counselor (LPC) who works with students in need of academic support. He says that stress and irregular sleep and eating patterns — which are often ubiquitous parts of college life — can go hand in hand with anxiety.
“Sleep is a big one — if they’re just not sleeping, or sleeping too much,” says Pisarik, who also treats many college-age clients at his private practice in Athens, Georgia. “This is really, really common — clients who can’t get to bed until 4 a.m., and then they can’t get to class, and it snowballs. Their thoughts just race with worry. … Sleep seems to be a big diagnostic indicator [for anxiety], and not being able to go to bed. [I ask clients,] ‘What are you thinking about, and can you stop thinking about this? Is that what’s keeping you from getting back to sleep?’ They get tired and fatigued, and it’s perpetuated.”
In addition, anxiety is often coupled with — or is an outgrowth of — other mental illnesses, most commonly depression. Counselors will need to treat a client’s anxiety alongside other diagnoses, Bennett says. For example, a client with schizophrenia will have hallucinations that provoke extreme anxiety. If the counselor doesn’t address the client’s anxiety, those symptoms will get worse, explains Bennett.
“Depression and anxiety are like brother and sister,” she adds. “They play off of each other and exacerbate the symptoms. You need to work through both. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with anyone who solely experienced anxiety.”
Stephanie Kuhn, an ACA member and LPC at the Anxiety Treatment Center of Greater Chicago, agrees. She regularly sees client anxiety paired with other issues such as specific phobias, insomnia, chronic pain issues, depression, panic disorders and OCD.
“It’s never really one thing,” Kuhn says. “It’s never just anxiety.”
Pumping the brakes on racing thoughts
The first step for many people who struggle with anxiety is to create awareness of their thoughts and then learn to manage those thoughts with a counselor’s help. Although the strategy of identifying negative self-talk and addressing one’s thoughts is old hat to most counselors, it may be an entirely new concept for some people, especially younger clients, says Pisarik, an ACA member who uses cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) in his private practice. Clients with anxiety often polarize, exaggerate or catastrophize details in their minds as they ruminate over them, he explains.
“Even being able to identify anxious thoughts is big,” Pisarik says. “They just assume it’s normal to walk around [feeling] anxious because of these thoughts. … It gives them a language and a real usable and rudimentary skill they can use in the moment when they’re walking in [to a stressful exam]. They can identify that their inner narrative isn’t healthy.”
For example, a college student might come to a counselor expressing worry about an upcoming exam in a class that he or she needs to pass for a major in pre-med. The student might have allowed negative and catastrophic thoughts to snowball: “If I get a C on this test, I will never get into medical school, which will derail my entire career plan and make my parents angry and disappointed.”
“For … a student who is 20 years old and [still] learning to think critically, it would be easy to blow everything out of proportion and catastrophize everything,” Pisarik says. “I am really big on helping them understand negative thinking and false cognitions, and getting them to self-monitor and renarrate [their unhealthy thoughts].”
Following the CBT approach, Pisarik says he would talk such clients through their thought patterns to identify and restructure their negative thoughts about the exam. He would also suggest that they focus on and remind themselves of prior successes, such as other exams or classes in which they earned A’s and B’s.
“I would try and systematically educate the client [about] what type of thinking that is,” Pisarik continues. “There are many doctors out there who got C’s and got into medical school, and probably [who] got C’s in medical school. I will explain that they are catastrophizing this … [and] try and get them to think about it in a different way, evaluate it carefully and create a different narrative about it. Are there people who have gotten C’s and gotten into medical school? If it stops you from getting into medical school, would that be the worst thing in the world?”
“It takes a consistent effort to practice and challenge one’s thinking,” adds Pisarik, who co-authored the article “A Phenomenological Study of Career Anxiety Among College Students.” The article will be published in the December issue of The Career Development Quarterly, the journal of the National Career Development Association, a division of ACA.
CBT works well for anxiety because “it lets people see that their own thinking and their behaviors are not productive for the way they want to live or the life they’re living right now,” says Kuhn, who uses both CBT and exposure therapy with her clients at the Anxiety Treatment Center of Greater Chicago. “It’s giving people an outside perspective — getting them to look at their own thoughts and behaviors objectively rather than letting those anxious thoughts take over everything, making it harder to function.”
One way Kuhn works with clients on challenging their unhealthy thoughts is by asking them to identify the best, worst and most likely outcomes of situations they are ruminating over. “I ask, ‘Would [the outcome] matter in a week, a month or a year from now?’ Typically the answer is no,” Kuhn says. “After we go through that, we reframe the original thought [and] transform it into something more rational, more realistic.”
Both Pisarik and Kuhn encourage their clients to keep thought logs to track anxious thoughts and the situations that triggered them. This exercise increases self-awareness, helps identify triggers and creates an opportunity to discuss how the client might change the negative narrative.
“Writing helps a lot because it slows people’s minds down, and they can go back and read about it,” Kuhn says. “Creating that awareness is the only way to understand yourself, understand what you’re worried about and be able to accept it and push it away.”
In addition to using thought logs, Pisarik gives his clients a list of automatic negative thoughts, or ANTs, to check themselves against. The collection lists the most common types of unhealthy, anxious thoughts and types of thinking, including catastrophizing and either-or thinking (polarizing).
Kuhn has a particular phrase that she often repeats with clients: “Handle it.” She acknowledges that it’s not the most empathic of mantras, but it does help to focus on the manageability of anxiety. With clients, she works toward a goal of “being able to sit with the uncomfortableness [of anxious thoughts] and tolerate the stress.”
Kuhn says her style when working with clients matches her personality: “Let’s go forward and hit our fears hard instead of tiptoeing around them.”
Exposure therapy, which introduces things in small, controlled increments in session that make a client anxious, is another good way to focus on handling anxiety, Kuhn adds. Whether the scenario is a fear of speaking up in class or a fear of being rejected by a loved one, exposure therapy can help clients learn to live with the issue and the anxious feelings that come with it.
“When I talk to people about ‘handling it,’ it’s creating that awareness and understanding [of] themselves that they’re able to manage or take on more than they think they can,” Kuhn says. “Anxiety a lot of the time makes us believe that we can’t handle the tiniest things. That’s why our body has created or learned how to respond to things in an overactive or hypersensitive way.” This is most commonly experienced in our fight-or-flight response, she says.
Managing worry and taming anxiety
From CBT and mindfulness to a focus on wellness and coping strategies, professional counselors have a wide range of tools to help clients who struggle with anxiety. Here are some ideas and techniques that can be particularly useful.
> Controlling the controllables. Kuhn says it can be helpful for clients to talk through and identify what is out of their control during situations that make them anxious. “A lot of times, anxious clients want control over everything, and that’s just not realistic,” Kuhn says. “It’s important to go over what’s controllable and what’s not. That creates awareness and a pathway to reevaluate [their] own thinking and behavior. I like to call it ‘controlling the controllables.’ I talk with clients about this a lot.”
Kuhn often uses an exercise with clients in which she draws a target with concentric circles. Things that clients can control, such as their own thoughts and behaviors, go in the center circle. Things that they partially control, such as their emotions or what they focus on sometimes, go in the middle ring. Things that are out of their control, such as what other people think or do, go in the outside circle. In a simpler alternative, Kuhn draws a center line down a piece of paper and works with clients to list what is and isn’t in their control in situations that make them anxious.
> Creating common ground. Kuhn says she also talks openly with clients about how common anxiety is, alerting them that they are among literally millions of Americans who are battling the same challenge. “I let them know they are not alone. It creates a universality,” Kuhn says. “To let people know that they’re not the only ones suffering like this can help. … It does create a common ground for people not to feel ashamed of [their anxiety] or feel like they can’t talk to someone about it. Just creating that education typically makes people feel a ton better.”
> Acknowledging and naming worry. Journaling and making lists to document anxious thoughts can help clients address and reframe the everyday rumination that accompanies anxiety. Kuhn offers two variations on this intervention: worry time and the worry tree.
With “worry time,” clients set aside a dedicated amount of time (Kuhn suggests 30 minutes) every day to write down any anxious thoughts that are troubling them. Clients don’t need to engage in long-form writing to complete this exercise, Kuhn says. Making a bulleted list or jotting thoughts down on sticky notes will work just as well. When the designated time is up, clients put all the notes in a box or container that they have set aside for this purpose. This action signifies that they are leaving those thoughts behind and can move on with the day.
“They have to leave those thoughts or sticky notes there and be done with them,” she says. “Obviously more [anxious] thoughts will come, but you have to remind yourself to leave them behind.”
With Kuhn’s “worry tree” intervention, clients create a flowchart of their anxious thoughts. With each item, clients ask themselves whether their worry is productive or unproductive (see image, below). “Is it something that you can actually do something about?” Kuhn asks. “If it’s unproductive, then you need to just let it go. Do something you enjoy or focus on something else to reset [your mind].”
> Mind-body focus and exercise. Mindfulness, meditation and other calming interventions can be particularly helpful for clients with anxiety. Kuhn recommends the smartphone app Pacifica, which prompts users with breathing, relaxation and mindfulness exercises, for both practitioners and clients. Kuhn, who has a background in sports counseling, and Pisarik, who is a runner himself, also prescribe exercise to anxious clients. Exercise boosts serotonin, a neurotransmitter connected to feelings of well-being, and comes with a host of other wellness benefits. In addition, exercise allows a person to get outdoors or disengage from work and home activities and other people for a brief period to “have time to hear your thoughts and challenge them,” Pisarik says. “You have to hear your thoughts if you’re going to challenge them.”
> The butterfly hug. Beth Patterson, an ACA member and LPC with a private practice in Denver, teaches deep breathing exercises to anxious clients to help them become grounded, focusing on the flow of energy through the body. She also recommends the “butterfly hug” technique. With this technique, clients cross their arms across their chests, just below the collarbone, with both feet planted firmly on the floor.
Clients tap themselves gently, alternating between their right and left hands. This motion introduces bilateral stimulation, the rhythmic left-right patterns that are used in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. “It’s phenomenally self-soothing,” Patterson says. “Doing that with deep breathing really helps with anxiety. I love the idea that you’re hugging yourself. Even just doing that helps.”
> Walk it out. Along with deep breathing and grounding, Patterson also recommends walking and movement for clients who are feeling anxious. She instructs clients to focus on the feeling of each foot hitting the ground instead of their anxious thoughts. As with the butterfly hug, this action creates bilateral stimulation, Patterson notes.
Bennett also uses walking as a way to help clients refocus their thoughts. She will take clients out of the office during a session for a “mindful walk” up and down the block. During the walk, they talk about what they’re sensing, from the sunshine to the breeze to the smell of flowers. Bennett says this allows her to work with clients “in the moment,” recognizing and refocusing anxious thoughts as they come. Afterward, they process and talk through the experience back in the office.
“It’s a lesson that [anxious] thoughts are going to come up for you, and you can refocus on your sense of touch or hearing,” Bennett says. “Thoughts will come up, and it’s really easy to attach to those thoughts and become anxious, but we can acknowledge the thought, be accepting of it in the moment and refocus. Change and connection can come that way.”
> This is not that. Clients commonly transfer anxiety-provoking personal issues onto relationships or situations in other facets of life, including the workplace, Patterson says. For example, Patterson worked with a client who had a very domineering, controlling mother, and this client felt triggered by a female boss in her workplace. Patterson introduced the client to the mantra “this is not that,” and they worked on reframing the anxiety the client experienced when she felt her boss was being controlling.
“She had to work through it in a beneficial and compassionate way for herself and really remember ‘this is not that,’” Patterson says. “Our minds are brilliant, but they’re binary computers. When something happens, it will immediately associate it with something else it knows. If a co-worker is being overly competitive, it might trigger feelings about sibling rivalry. This [mantra] offers a great opportunity to work through family-of-origin issues [with clients] when you see them replicated in the workplace.”
> Abstain from negativity. Another empowering tool clients can use is to become conscious of and then avoid unhealthy or toxic situations and people who trigger their anxiety, Pisarik says. He advises clients to “stay away from groups of people or individuals who they know will engage in negative self-talk or negativity. If you’re feeling anxious already, the last thing you want to do is to go and talk to that toxic person.”
Similarly, he commonly advises anxious students to avoid waiting outside the room where they’re about to take a big exam, surrounded by 30 classmates who might be saying that they are going to fail, they didn’t study enough, they don’t feel prepared and so on. Counselors can coach anxious clients to think ahead and prepare ways to remove themselves from these types of situations, regroup and redirect their thinking, Pisarik says.
> Lifestyle choices. Counselors can also educate clients on the connection between anxiety and lifestyle choices such as sleep patterns, exercise and diet, Pisarik says. For young clients especially, this also includes social media use, he notes.
Pisarik says he frequently talks with his college-age clients about their alcohol consumption, drug use, irregular diet and other aspects of the modern university experience. “The lifestyle of a college student is absolutely conducive to generating anxiety,” he says. “While they are college students, I get that — their job is to have fun and sleep whenever [they] want. But building some sort of healthy routine is important, [including] getting enough sleep and making sure they eat well. I tell them to try and maintain the diet they had at home. … If you’re struggling with anxiety to begin with, any one of those [elements] can add to it, and those are really easy fixes.”
For Bennett, conversations with clients about lifestyle also include questions about smoking and caffeine use. Both tobacco and caffeine can make a person shaky or make his or her heart and mind race, which can trigger or exacerbate anxiety, she points out.
In addition to social media use, Pisarik also asks clients about their social engagement, such as participating in sports or other hobbies. Clients who struggle with anxiety often isolate themselves, he notes, so he works with them to identify social outlets, from volunteering to joining a school club. This sense of connection can reduce anxiety, he says.
> Narrative therapy and externalization. Patterson finds narrative therapy helpful when working with clients with anxiety because it allows them to externalize what they’re feeling. When clients uses phrases such as “I am worried” or “I am anxious,” Patterson will gently redirect them by saying, “No, you’re Susan, and you have a problem called worry.”
“Externalize the problem,” Patterson explains to clients. “Externalize it and dis-identify it. See it outside of yourself. … ‘I can deal with that because it’s not who I am.’ … If you’re carrying it around as if it’s you, you can’t do anything about it. The truth of the matter is, it’s not you.”
Counselors can also help clients with anxiety to focus on a time in their lives when they faced a similar challenge and got through it, Patterson says. She asks clients questions to help them probe deeper. For example: How did you handle that challenge? What worked, and what didn’t work?
Working with clients on medication
Anti-anxiety medications are commonly prescribed in the United States. Their prevalence means that counselors are likely to encounter clients who are taking medication to control their anxiety symptoms.
Regardless of their feelings about the use of psychotropic medications, practitioners must treat and support clients who are taking such medications the same as they would any other client, Kuhn says. “I never treat someone differently based on their medication. They get the same CBT therapy that anyone else would get,” she says, adding that the most important thing is to ensure that clients don’t feel judged by the counselor.
Kuhn has seen anti-anxiety medications work well for some clients. “It can take that little edge off that they need to get through the day and be able to function,” she says. At the same time, she also has clients who express a desire to be able to stop taking their medication eventually.
Pisarik notes that for anti-anxiety medication to work well, clients must remember to take it faithfully, keep track of how it makes them feel and schedule the repeated appointments needed to monitor and adjust dosage levels. Each of these elements can pose a challenge to college-age clients. “It’s a lot of work, and [college students] often lack the discipline and time to get it right,” Pisarik says.
Bennett agrees, suggesting that even though professional counselors are not the ones prescribing medications, they still need to discuss and explore medication use with their clients. She also stresses that practitioners should be knowledgeable about the different kinds of medications that clients may be taking and their possible side effects.
Bennett sometimes conducts conference calls with her clients and the medical professionals who are prescribing them medications so that she can help clients ask questions and otherwise be a support to them. “We [counselors] don’t prescribe, but at the same time it’s very important to collaborate with whoever is prescribing the [client’s] medication,” she says. “Be supportive and involve the client in conversations: How long have you taken it? Have you noticed any side effects? Has it been helping? Talk about how often they’re supposed to take it and if they’re adhering to that. There can be stigma about taking medications, so it’s important to normalize it. … It’s comforting too for the client to know that you’re on their side, and part of that is collaboration [about medication].”
See the person, not the anxiety
Given how common anxiety disorders are, it’s likely that any counselor’s caseload will be filled with clients presenting with symptoms of anxiety. It is important, however, for counselors to treat each client as an individual and to tailor the therapeutic approach to meet that client’s unique needs, Bennett emphasizes.
Building trust and a healthy therapeutic relationship are key in treating anxiety because clients can feel very vulnerable as they talk about what makes them anxious, Bennett points out. That is why it is critical to get to know these clients as individuals rather than through the lens of their anxiety.
“Don’t assume that because they’re anxious, they’re going to think and behave like other people with anxiety,” Bennett says. “Meet them where they are and find out what’s most effective for them based off of their interests. It can be empowering for clients to integrate their own interests and life experiences into the therapeutic process. Not only does this create buy-in for the client, but it can also help in creating a safe space to begin exploring the vulnerabilities that come along with anxiety. … Hear their story, find their strengths and give them a voice in the process. It’s important to honor them as individuals.”