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Facing up to anxiety disorders

Griffith University,Menzies Health Institute Queen
Photo: Griffith University,Menzies Health Institute Queen
An innovative psychological research program is working to help people suffering from anxiety disorders.

The Griffith University therapy program, Facing the Fear, is based on a leading United States approach, known as Unified Protocol for Transdiagnostic Treatment for Emotional Disorder.

The program uses cognitive behavioural therapy in a group setting and provides treatment in three stages.

Registered psychologist Bonnie Clough, a PhD candidate at the School of Applied Psychology and the Menzies Health Institute Queensland, a trailblazer in allied health research, says almost a third of people world-wide will experience some form of anxiety disorder in their life.
“Anxiety in itself isn’t problematic - anxiety can actually be really functional,” she says.

“If you think about times when you might have had anxiety leading up to a presentation or an exam, it actually spurs you to put more work in to prepare for the presentation or to study for the exam.

“But then there’s a tipping point where it’s no longer actually functional, it actually starts interfering in your life.

“If people are experiencing anxiety to the extent where it’s actually interfering in their day to day functioning, whether it’s at work or socially or with their sleep, then that’s the point where we would suggest they get treatment.”

There are a range of anxiety disorders, from generalised anxiety disorder to specific phobia, panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), social anxiety disorder to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Anxiety disorders can affect people in various ways, Ms Clough says.

“Some of the really common ones are difficulties with concentration, difficulties with sleep, one of the key things is avoidance - so if people start to fear a situation or a feeling that they don’t like, they’ll start to avoid things that bring on that situation.

“A person with social anxiety disorder will effectively cut themselves off from their friends and other social contacts because they’re that anxious about going into that situation and feeling those uncomfortable emotions.

“Or it could be the person that experiences panic attacks and no longer leaves the house for the fear that if they do they will experience a panic attack.”

Ms Clough says severe anxiety is treatable.

“I think that’s what a lot of people don’t realise. We have a number of really good treatment options available.”

Now in its fourth year, Facing the Fear features nine two-hour weekly sessions in groups of between six to eight people with two provisionally registered psychologists completing their postgraduate studies at Griffith.

The therapy approach assumes that most forms of anxiety and depression overlap with the same underlying causes, making it beneficial to treat them together rather than working on them separately.

In its first stage, Facing the Fear provides information around understanding anxiety to participants.

“We give people education about how common anxiety is, how it typically develops and how it’s then maintained and becomes problematic in their lives,” Ms Clough explains.

“The second phase we start to deliver or teach them some strategies for helping to manage their anxiety, and during the week we ask them to try them out in different situations and work out which ones they find helpful.”

The final stage of therapy involves the participants applying those strategies in the situations that provoke their anxiety.

Ms Clough says the therapy, which has produced positive results in the United States, is already delivering excellent outcomes in about 100 participants who completed group sessions in Australia.

“There’s been some positive effects,” she says.

“We’ve seen participants have reductions in anxiety, stress and depression and that they have generally improved quality of life at the end of the program, and that those improvements they then maintain when we follow up with them at six months and one year.

“One of the things with psychological interventions is it’s not one-size-fits-all but when we look at it in that group approach it’s showing that most of the people are getting good gains from this program - they are getting improvement.”

Ms Clough says the university is seeking 40 more participants to complete the last stage of the program, based at its Mount Gravatt campus, before researchers conduct a final analysis.

She says if the program continues to show improvements, it could assist psychologists with an efficient way of providing treatment.

“The skills that are used in the program, they’re not new skills,” Ms Clough says.

“They are ones that have been trialled and tested before, it’s the approach to treating them that’s different.

“So realistically we know that what’s in the program works, it’s just a different way of delivering it and a different way of addressing people’s difficulties,” she says.

“There’s more people that need services than have access to them and if you look at an approach like this it has the capacity to really be disseminated quite broadly, and hopefully people who otherwise wouldn’t have access will be able to access the program.”

To find out more about the program email facingthefear@griffith.edu.au

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Karen Keast

Karen Keast is a freelance health journalist who writes news and feature articles for HealthTimes.

Karen regularly writes for some of Australia’s leading health news websites and magazines.  In a media career spanning 20 years, Karen has worked as a senior journalist in newspapers and television. She has covered the grind of daily news and worked as a politics reporter at countless state and federal elections.

Since venturing into freelance writing five years ago, Karen has found her niche in writing about the health sector for editors, businesses and corporations.

Karen has interviewed the heads of peak health organisations in Australia and overseas, and written hundreds of news and feature articles covering the dedicated work of health professionals who tread the corridors of hospitals and health services, universities, aged care facilities and practices, day in and day out.

Follow Karen Keast on Twitter @stylemywords