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The Anxiety and Depression Association of America says that anxiety affects approximately 40 million adults—making it the most common mental disorder in the United States.
In this article we will explore anxiety and how ABA therapy can be used to help treat it.
What Is ABA Therapy?
Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy is used traditionally with children on the autism spectrum. According to AutismSpeaks.org, the therapy is based upon the sciences of behavior and learning.
The knowledge of how behavior is affected by environmental factors and the knowledge of how someone learns is used to create a treatment plan designed to modify inappropriate behaviors. The aim of ABA therapy is to teach children with autism new ways to behave that aren’t harmful to them. It helps the children improve language skills, social skills, thinking skills, and daily living skills.
ABA therapy sessions can be conducted in a variety of places. Sessions can happen at school, in your home, or even in a central community location. The therapist may offer individual sessions or even group sessions.
What does that mean for you? ABA therapy is highly customizable. The therapist will design a plan as unique as you are. You will learn skills in your therapy session that could help you deal with the anxiety of daily life.
What Is Anxiety?
In simplest terms, anxiety disorder is a reaction to something stressful. Your body has a stress response when you feel threatened by something. That can lead you to feel extremely uneasy or apprehensive. The uneasiness can lead to panic attacks or compulsive behaviors that are at times inappropriate.
Anxiety is highly treatable. However, many people let it go untreated. Anxiety disorders, especially untreated anxiety, can lead to other mental health problems as well as physical illnesses that can affect daily life. Some adults with anxiety also experience depression, chronic headaches, problems sleeping, digestion issues, eating disorders, and other chronic disorders.
Children experience anxiety as well. Anxiety can cause academic performance to decline. Depression, ADHD (attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder), and eating disorders are sometimes linked to anxiety. Children with autism can be particularly prone to anxiety.
Can ABA Therapy Help Autistic Children with Anxiety?
Applied Behavior Analysis strategies have been used to correct inappropriate behaviors associated with the autism diagnosis. There has been some success with treating anxiety disorders in autistic patients using the same techniques. A technique specifically used to help with anxiety in autistic children is “the bully in the brain” technique.
“The Bully in the Brain”
“The bully in the brain” technique teaches how to deal with fear differently. The child is encouraged to imagine the fear as an internal “bully.” Naming their internal fear with a name such as “Mrs. Witch” or “Mr. Mean” can help them conquer the fear. Finally, they are encouraged to talk to their internal fears in a way that helps reduce their anxiety about them.
This technique can be empowering. It teaches you to talk back to the voice of fear. “The bully in the brain” focuses on internal behaviors, but exposure is a technique that uses a different focus.
Fears sometimes limit the child’s ability to complete everyday tasks. They don’t feel safe in their environment. The exposure therapy technique allows the child to experience fear in an environment that is controlled so they feel safe doing so. They then learn how to control their reactions to their specific fear.
Exposure therapy allows the child to identify the triggers that feed their fears. After they identify their triggers, they are exposed gradually to representations of their fear. The gradual exposure helps to limit severe responses like panic attacks. Exposure therapy can be particularly helpful in patients with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD is most often associated with veterans who return from combat. Soldiers aren’t the only people who suffer from PTSD, though. Anyone who has a traumatic experience can develop PTSD. People who have been a victim of domestic abuse, a crime, or even a natural disaster are common sufferers.
ABA therapy techniques have been shown to help alleviate symptoms of PTSD. Exposure therapy, in particular, seems to be helpful according to studies conducted in 2012 and 2013. The studies focused on returning veterans, but the concepts are the same for anyone who has experienced trauma. Untreated PTSD can lead to phobias.
A phobia is an extreme fear. It’s irrational, and it can often lead to harmful or negative behaviors. The therapist will help you adjust harmful behaviors to something healthier. The therapist’s goal is to teach you appropriate coping techniques to replace inappropriate ones.
ABA strategies are often helpful when dealing with phobias. The techniques teach you to take a step-by-step approach to deal with fearful situations.
ABA therapies were originally used with patients diagnosed with autism. Therapists can use the same ABA techniques to treat people dealing with anxiety disorder. The goal of ABA therapy is to change behaviors, so the patient learns better coping skills.
A therapist will determine which strategy best fits your diagnosis. “The bully in the brain” and exposure are two popular techniques that have been shown to work with patients who are experiencing anxiety. Exposure has been an effective treatment for combat veterans who suffer from PTSD.
Daily living skills like language, thinking, and social skills can also be improved using Applied Behavior Analysis therapy techniques. Your therapist is able to customize techniques to treat your unique situation. Your therapist will analyze whether a group or individual session will benefit you more. They will also help you choose an appropriate location for your therapy sessions.
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