A study released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare this week shows the extent of anxiety in Australia. Anxiety disorders are now the leading cause of ill health among girls and women aged between 5 and 44. The report in The Age was illustrated by the story of an 18-year old woman who had been hospitalised for her chronic anxiety (The Age, Friday 22 June 2018, pp. 6-7).
Stories like this break my heart. When anxiety is properly treated, it can be nipped in the bud. It should never lead to hospitalisation.
During stressful life events our bodies produce large amounts of CRF (Corticotrophin Releasing Factor), which make our neurons more agitated. This results in frightening and threatening ‘mentations’ – that is, sensations, emotions, thoughts, images and memories. This is a normal response to stressful life events.
Regrettably many therapeutic approaches encourage people to explore and engage with their frightening mentations, which escalates anxiety. The more we pay attention, the more we engage our normal learning cycle, resulting in more brain synapses devoted to the frightening mentations, and more long-term consolidation and retrieval. In these circumstances, it is no wonder that people in the mental health system end up becoming hospitalised for anxiety.
The key therapeutic strategy for anxiety is not to be drawn into the very powerful human learning cycle, which is activated when we pay attention. In my Smart Therapy approach, I teach people how not to pay attention to their frightening mentations. This stops anxiety in its tracks and prevents hospitalisation and the revolving door.