Understanding Anxiety and Stress from a Cognitive Perspective

behavioural stress and anxiety

In this article we are going to explore some of the cognitive definitions and processes involved in understanding anxiety and stress in the human body. Analysing why we’re programmed in this way from an evolutionary perspective to how we’re responding in today’s environment.

This article is the second in a three-part series that seeks to understand stress and anxiety from a biological perspective, now onto cognitive and then finally behavioural.

Cognitive-behavioural theories of anxiety disorders point to the importance of the learning experience in their development and this is the main theory that underpins Beck’s cognitive approach to therapy for anxiety disorders. Displaying that anxiety occurs when life events involving threat reactivate threat-oriented cognitive schemas formed early in childhood during a threatening and stressful experience. These threat oriented schemas contain assumptions about the dangerous nature of the environment, maximising threat-related negative events.

Schemas can be explained as cognitive structures representing organised knowledge about concepts, events or situations. Schemas are based on conceptually driven processes (as opposed to data-driven processes) which allow sense to be made from impoverished or ambiguous information. Schemas are used to assist in interpreting the world efficiently by guiding our attention, and encoding and retrieving information. It is most certainly the case that Schemas are only invoked when needed.

A Freudian perspective would state that developmental complication in childhood trauma events are stored in the unconscious and could lead to imbalances in the psyche; a dominant superego, resulting in anxiety disorders.

S.Green (1994) states, cognitive and behavioural therapies help the subject to re-structure their cognitions and to gain a more realistic view of their coping abilities and demands on them and refers to the work of Beck’s cognitive therapy.

Could these threat-oriented schemas Beck identifies be evermore present within more trivial environments today; such as the working environment? Or a school or general social environment?

The common feature of generalized anxiety disorder, worry, has been identified to be a key factor in the production of threat-related information-processing biases in the domains of attention, memory, interpretation of ambiguity, and problem solving however, worry and cognitive biases are not unique to generalized anxiety disorder.

What may be unique to generalized anxiety disorder is the pervasive use of worry as a strategy to avoid the intensely negative effect and the broad domains in which these biases are displayed, this directly relates to the clinical observation that patients with generalized anxiety disorder worry about numerous life stressors.

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