DYSFUNCTIONAL ANXIETY: ORIGINS AND SYMPTOMS
However, it may occur that we are unable to cope effectively with a dangerous situation. Inversely, there may also be moments when a state of arousal or alarm does not correspond with a real external danger. In such cases the anxiety that we feel is transformed from an entirely natural and adaptive response into an affect which is entirely out of proportion or an unrealistic worry. It may thus assume the connotation of a psychological disorder, thereby losing its function of promoting growth and development and eventually becoming a factor capable of undermining the personality. In this way anxiety can lose its adaptive function of facilitating interaction with the environment and can generate a condition where we become less adapted to and lose contact with the environment around us. This kind of situation may occur for a variety of reasons and very often it can be difficult to comprehend their origin. In general terms, such a condition may arise on account of an erroneous evaluation of perceptions resulting from our cognitive processing of reality.
When such a situation arises, people will tend to develop and present types of behaviour of a generally pathological nature that have the purpose of restraining the strong anxiety they continuously feel. An example of this is avoidance behaviour, with which a person can voluntarily and repeatedly avoid contact with certain sources of anxiety (such as the physical closeness of dogs in the case of people who suffer from a phobia involving these animals). In this way however, specific fears will grow in their intensity and become increasingly problematical. In more serious cases it may occur that a person will lose any awareness of the source of his/her anxiety, removing it from the conscious mind. The defence mechanism of repression acts as a kind of mental censure, removing unpleasant and threatening thoughts and memories to an unconscious part of the mind. These elements are no longer recalled, however they remain present and every now and then may generate anxiety. At this point, the anxiety becomes ‘generalized’ and no longer appears to have any tangible cause.
A further important factor to take into consideration is represented by the secondary advantages of avoidance behaviour. In a certain sense, people who suffer from anxiety may "exploit" their situation to obtain help from others, and perhaps also in a way which is not entirely conscious. For example, returning to the case of people who are afraid of dogs, such individuals might avoid going out alone for fear of being attacked by a dog and so ask a family member or friend to accompany them every time they want to leave the house. They may even ask another person to perform their duties or activities for them. This type of behaviour is aimed at keeping phobic individuals at a certain distance from the source of their fears but stops them from facing and coping with the frightening stimuli and solving their problem in a constructive way.
‘Performance anxiety’ is a very common type of dysfunctional anxiety. This is the sort of fear often found in university students, who develop a fear of taking examinations. From the cognitive point of view, ‘examination anxiety’ can be related to feelings of fragility and inadequacy. The particular vulnerability of students suffering from this type of fear is related to their performance, i.e., the fear of receiving low marks, losing the esteem of their parents or partner or finding that their reputation has been compromised. The rigidity of such a position is constantly reinforced by various irrational ideas such as:<<I have to be perfect>>, <<I’ll be worth something only if I get good results >>, <<If I am not successful, people will criticize me: I’ll be isolated and emarginated>>. These ‘total’ convictions are also projected into the future, which is generally seen as desolate and offering no chances for improvement, and thus the exam situation gets generalised to every other life situation:<<I’ll end up as a good-for-nothing>>, <<My life will be useless and I’ll never get any satisfaction>>, <<Other people will never respect me >>.
Dysfunctional anxiety can affect both adults and children: one particular type of anxiety - defined as separation anxiety - is in fact a disorder typical of childhood itself, its principle characteristic being an excessive form of anxiety presented by children when they are forced to separate from a member of the family to whom they are deeply attached. This state of anxiety emerges every time a child is left alone and causes the development of unrealistic and persistent fears concerning the occurrence of catastrophic events that might permanently separate him or her from the parents. In time, the child cannot be left alone even for just a few moments.