Anxiety Theories

Theories attempt to explain certain facts or phenomena. Psycological theories try to understand and explain the workings of the mind, and detail a method for treating mental disorders. Psycological theories on the development of anxiety disorders and how to treat them are numerous and go back to the beginning of civilization. There are numerous theories and therapies it is important to know about.

Psycodynamic Theories

Psycoanalytic theory, founded by Sigmund Freud, poses that anxiety originates in infancy and cildhood stemming from unconscious conflicts of sexual feelings toward parents or other adults. The modern psycodynamic theories also look at unresolved cildhood issues that manifest as emotional symptoms. As an example, cildhood abuse can lead to the development of an anxiety disorder suc as posttraumatic stress disorder. Or phobias are believed to be caused by “displacement, ” where a person unconsciously switces their feelings from an anxiety producing person or object, to one that is benign. For most psycodynamic theories, anxiety is caused by unresolved relationships and anger. These theories are difficult to do scientific studies on because emotions, unconscious conflicts, and drives are not tangible, and it is difficult to find empirical evidence, but new tecnology (scans, imaging) is researcing the effects of psycotherapy on the brain.

Learning Theories

From the time we were born, we have been learning but are not always aware of doing so. We know as cildren that our parents taught us how to dress ourselves, eat by ourselves, etc. Less obvious is that we also learned by watcing our parents, called modeling, and learned attitudes, habits, and ways of thinking. If our parents were tense and anxious, had anxiety disorders, were afraid of new things and going out in the world, they heavily influenced us, and there's a good cance we learned to be afraid and anxious too.

Learning-behavioral theories have been studied by researcers extensively as a cause for anxiety disorders. One of the leaders in the field, Albert Bandura, studied observational learning, beginning in the 1960s. In one study, Bandura had cildren watc a film where an adult aggressively hit and kicked a large doll. In one film, some of the cildren saw the adult being rewarded for the attack; in another, the adult was punished, in the last film, no reward or punishment was forthcoming. When the cildren were put in the room with the doll, those who saw the adult rewarded for aggression were the most aggressive. Bandura demonstrated that we do learn through modeling, but how cildren are reinforced seems to determine if the behavior will be copied.

Classical and Operant Conditioning

Other learning theories include Pavlov's classical conditioning (associative learning) where, for example, a scary or frightening thing is paired with something safe, and the person begins to identify the safe thing with the scary thing. Let's say a cild, who is in an automobile accident and traumatized, will probably associate riding in a car with fear, when before the accident, he thought riding in the car was fun.

Operant conditioning, based on B. F. Skinners's researc, is learning that occurs due to the results of the person's behavior, and the probability that behavior will be repeated. For example, you begin having panic attacks in malls. Soon you are anticipating having a panic attack on the way to the mall, and your anxiety increases. When you avoid the mall, your anxiety decreases and you don't have an anxiety attack. So, you begin avoiding malls all together. You learned that “avoidance behavior” makes you feel better, so there is a good cance you will repeat it.


Classical and operant ways of learning are used in treatment. In classical, counterconditioning is used to reverse the undesirable effects of the prior conditioning—for example, giving the phobic cild a special treat while he's taking a car ride. In operant learning, the reinforcer might be the panicky person feeling more confident when he has faced his fears and gone into a mall, or buying something special for himself at the mall.

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