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Anxiety: How is it caused?

Behavioural Psychology (which forms the foundation Cognitive Therapy) is built on the concept of Classical Conditioning.  The classic early example of Classical Conditioning was seen in Pavlov’s conditioning of his dog.  As food was presented to his dog, Pavlov would simultaneously ring a bell.  Eventually Pavlov could simply ring the bell and his dog would begin to salivate regarless of whether or not food was present.  The dog had begun to associate the bell with the food, to the extent that only the bell needed to be heard in order for the dog to respond as though the food itself had been presented. 

If a traumatic situation occurs simultaneously to something else, then that ‘something else’ can operate like the bell in the Pavlov’s dog example.  For example, if someone had a bad car accident, it may be that when the person sees a car that looks identical to the car with which she collided, the same emotions of panic and fear that she experienced during her accident are momentarily re-induced. 

How does Classical Conditioning relate to emotional development?

This has important implications in terms of emotional development.  Imagine, for example, that a baby’s mother constantly rages and shouts at her baby, and that such behaviour induces immense fear in the baby.  As the baby grows up and begins to have close relationships with others, it will be no surprise if he now associates intimate relationships with feelings of fear and panic. 

If a 'need' (see 'Psychoanalysis: Core principles' for the explanation of 'needs' or 'drives') becomes associated with unpleasant experiences, an individual may experience conflicting emotions: on the one hand, instinctively, she desires that which stimulates her, on the other hand she fears it, since it is also associated with unpleasant experiences.  As a result of this conflict, she will typically withhold her impulse to satisfy her 'need'.  As discussed in ‘Psychoanalysis: Core principles’ above, such withholding of impulse creates tension and uses up ‘mental energy’.

In the above example (see ‘Traumas: Miniature examples of long-term emotional disturbance’) certain symptoms were exhibited (including physical shaking, and mentally replaying of the event over and over in her mind, and losing concentration on external events due to being mentally preoccupied with what had occurred) as the individual attempted to master the sudden stimulation that occurred after being verbally assaulted by someone whist she was on a shopping trip.  This occurred because she experienced a large stimulation of 'drives' (anger and fear) in a very short space of time.  Her system was overloaded, as it were, and physical and mental symptoms resulted.  Psychoanalytic theory proposes that if our drives are stimulated and we suppress them (i.e. we do not satisfy them), this takes up mental energy.  We have the ability to suppress a certain amount of stimulated drive, but only enough energy to suppress up to a certain point.  This is why the lady who was assaulted whist shopping manifested certain behaviours: her system had been overloaded by too much stimulation in too short a period of time.  Psychoanalytic theory proposes that if we habitually suppress 'needs' over a long period, will develop anxiety, and if the situation becomes chronic, we will develop neurotic symptoms.