Is anxiety curable? Why that's the wrong question to ask

What is anxiety?

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, in any given year, one in five Canadians will personally experience a mental health problem or illness. 

According to an Abacus Data survey commissioned by Yahoo Canada, 41 per cent of Canadians consider themselves to be someone who struggles with anxiety and 30 per cent have been diagnosed with anxiety by a medical professional.

But what exactly is an anxiety disorder?

“There are handful of different anxiety disorders and each one has different types of impacts,” said Dr. Judith Laposa, a psychologist and clinician scientist in the Anxiety Disorders Clinic of the Mood and Anxiety Disorders Division at The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.  

“Anxiety disorders include things like social anxiety disorder, where people feel marked anxiety in social situations where they’re afraid they might show anxiety symptoms or be judged negatively in a social situation,” she explained. “There’s also generalized anxiety disorder, which is a disorder characterized by excessive and uncontrollable worry. There are specific phobias, so for example, being really afraid of dogs and not being able to be around dogs at all.”

ALSO SEE: Are millennials really the anxiety generation?

In 2013, the American Psychistric Association updated the fifth edition The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to declassify post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) as anxiety disorders, but are still important to consider when talking about anxiety. 

“There’s PTSD, which is not technically classified as an anxiety disorder any longer – however it’s still clearly an anxiety related condition,” said Laposa. “There’s obsessive compulsive disorder, also not technically an anxiety disorder, but it also includes a lot of anxiety when people have intrusive thoughts that keep coming back over and over again. So suffice to say, theres a whole bunch of different types of anxiety.”

According to Yahoo Canada’s poll results, 16 per cent of people don’t believe that anxiety is a medical condition and six per cent don’t know if it is or isn’t.

“Sometimes theres a myth that anxiety disorders are not bonafide difficulty, which could not be farther from the truth,” Laposa continued. “I’m in the mood and anxiety clinic here at CAMH and we have hundreds of clients who are coming to see us for anxiety disorders on a variety of spectrums of severity but in terms of severe anxiety disorders – you know, you’re not working. You’re not having meaningful relationships, you’re not having high quality of life so they can be profoundly impacting and quite devastating on people functioning.”

Anxiety

So with the prevalence of Canadians suffering from an anxiety disorder – is it curable?

According to Yahoo Canada’s poll data, four in 10 Canadians believe it is not curable — but “curable” is perhaps not the right word to be using.

“Thats not the language the I would necessarily use with clients,” Laposa said. “I think are anxiety disorders treatable? Absolutely.”

ALSO SEE: Nearly half of Canadians suffer from anxiety — and many believe there’s no cure

Instead of thinking of anxiety disorders as something that can be cured, focus should be put on decreased symptoms and positive responses to medication or therapy.

“Not everyone has the experience of completely having the anxiety come away in a way that’s absolutely not there anymore,” explained Laposa. “I think what often is more common treatment responses is that people make very significant therapy gains, their anxiety symptoms decrease a lot such that they’re no longer necessarily interfering in their life functioning, but they may be still feeling some of those symptoms a little bit more than the average person.”

“So curable isn’t so much language that we would use but definitely you can have very significant improvement in your life, without a doubt,” she said.

There are also different outcome rates depending on which anxiety order is being dealt with.

“For example panic disorder, where people are having unexpected panic attacks and they change their behavior for fear of having panic attack for example, we know we have very, very high treatment response rates whereas other anxiety related conditions can be more challenging,” she added.

“The kind of bottom line of ‘Can an anxiety disorder get better with treatment whether that’s psychotherapy or medication or both?’ Yes absolutely.”

During the month of October, Yahoo Canada is delving into anxiety and why it’s so prevalent among Canadians. Read more content from our multi-part series here.

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Abacus Data, a market research firm based in Ottawa, conducted a survey for Yahoo Canada to test public attitudes towards anxiety as a medical condition, including social stigmas and cultural impacts. The study was an online survey of 1,500 Canadians residents, age 18 and over, who responded between Aug. 21 to Sept. 2, 2019. A random sample of panelists were invited to complete the survey from a set of partner panels based on the Lucid exchange platform. The margin of error for a comparable probability-based random sample of the same size is +/- 2.53%, 19 times out of 20. The data was weighted according to census data to ensure the sample matched Canada’s population according to age, gender, educational attainment, and region.