Anxiety is an integral part of many peoples life experience. But does it have to be a permanent part? Can anxiety be cured? Can a person struggling with intense experiences of anxiety – a debilitating, undefined, persistent and overwhelming sense of worry or dread that manifests with both physical and psychological symptoms – find lasting relief?
The core state of anxiety is associated with feelings of apprehension, self-doubt, dread and fear. Bodily responses include trembling, profuse perspiration, accelerated heartbeat and rapid breathing. While anxiety is a normal part of day-to-day life and is in this context usually related to an event or experience, when it disrupts normal physical and psychological functioning and manifests at the level of a disorder it is then less likely to be associated with specific stressors. Anxiety is the basis of a range of mental health disorders including panic attacks, phobias, generalized anxiety disorders and also has a strong association with many other mental health conditions including depression and substance abuse (see DSMV).
The goal of treatment of anxiety is the alleviation of the symptoms of pathological anxiety – the point where anxiety manifests as a disorder. In some instances this is in and of itself not very clear. For instance a person seeks therapy to relieve anxiety relating to public speaking. While therapy would definitely include lessening her anxiety using CBT and relaxation techniques (see my article regarding CBT as the therapy of choice for anxiety), a degree of anxiety may be considered desirable by the patient, even normal and helpful in ensuring proper preparation and a good performance. So when we talk about anxiety being cured, “normal” anxiety is an integral part of life experience and in fact drives us to adapt to or modify situations and experiences. Anxiety is integral to the human condition and if we were to be cured of all anxiety we would be missing a core motivating and directing drive. So the notion of “cure” is perhaps better understood from a more subjective perspective and perhaps is better stated as: “Is the person suffering from anxiety able to experience relief of symptoms to the degree that he/she requires? Is her experience of anxiety adaptive and supportive rather than debilitating?”
Some may define this alleviation of symptom as a “cure,” a restoration to health or the relief of a disease. However when talking about conditions that have multiple dimensions and multiple causes the notion of cure reflecting a complete and sustainable restoration to mental health is somewhat complex. A cure implies a complete restoration to a pre-existing state where anxiety was not at the level of a disorder. For some anxiety sufferers this is indeed the reality. This is especially so when the experience of anxiety is quite constrained, specific and linked to an external event. So for instance a person involved in a car accident may experience pathological levels of anxiety following the accident, but with treatment, the passing of time and distance from the stressful event, anxiety returns to normal levels. In contrast the more general, long term and internally driven the anxiety, the harder it is to speak of a cure. In these instances the alleviation of symptoms probably reflects temporary relief lasting from a few months to a few years. People with more generalized chromic anxiety based conditions (Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) may respond well to treatment and experience relief of symptoms but are vulnerable to relapse when encountering major life transitions or stressful events.
So the question “can anxiety be cured?” is actually a highly complex one. This article has touched on some of the dimensions one needs to consider in understanding this question. The notion of normal versus abnormal anxiety and variations in the degree of recovery from pathological anxiety makes this a multi-dimensional and nuanced issue.
Dr. Stacey Leibowitz-Levy is a highly experienced psychologist with a Master’s Degree in Clinical Psychology (Cum Laude) and a PhD in the area of stress and its relation to goals and emotion. She works with adults, teens and children within her areas of expertise. Take a look at her LinkedIn profile