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Can Simply Having "Hope" Reduce Your Suffering From Anxiety?

New research points to a greater source of healing.

What we label "anxiety disorder" is really a shortcut description of a range of distressing, disturbing, and potentially inhibiting emotional experiences. It's the more severe and often pervasive version of a normal emotion reflecting concern, distress, and fear. Our stress-heavy society, with its many sources of unpredictable, potentially frightening events, provides much fuel for anxiety. And those who may be prone to respond more extremely, by virtue of inherited tendencies combined with early life experiences, are likely to suffer more.

Many people seek help to alleviate and reduce anxiety—from psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of the two. Now, some recent research looks at the role of another source of help that mental health practitioners typically ignore or dismiss. It's the extent to which a person is able to generate, experience, and draw upon a sense of "hope." That sounds like a philosophical or spiritual issue, and it is. In fact, that's why it needs to be incorporated into our sources of what can help, and not be dismissed.

Although the study is limited in the implications of what it found, compared with more extensive clinical evidence, the research from the University of Houston found that hope is a trait that predicts resilience and recovery from anxiety disorders. But how? Let's take a look.

The lead researcher, Matthew Gallagher, described in this summary that the study sought empirical evidence to support that philosophical view that hope is a source of resiliency, growth, and healing. It looked for evidence that psychotherapy can result in clear increases in hope and that changes in hope are, in turn, associated with changes in anxiety symptoms. It examined the role of hope in predicting recovery during psychotherapy for a range of anxiety disorders, and it found that hope was a common element in reducing anxiety symptoms, as well as a strong predictor of recovery.

The researchers concluded from the study, published in Behavior Therapy, that hope represents the capacity of patients to identify strategies or pathways to achieve goals, and the motivation to pursue those pathways effectively. I think that's true, per se. However, such a description indicates a highly cognitive, rational, problem-solving behavior that somehow emanates from "hope."

But long-term clinical evidence suggests that sustained healing—not a short-term reduction of symptoms—grows from a broader experience of hopefulness. That is, from creating an enlarged vision of what one seeks and aspires to in life, overall: in relationships, social life, work, and career. And from creating an overall sense of purpose—what one is really living for—that is meaningful to oneself. That capacity to envision a healthier, more ideal sense of oneself is a powerful method of healing the source of chronic anxiety in one's life, and for promoting growth towards greater psychological health and well-being.

And that gives a different twist to the old saying, "One must remain hopeful... despite all the evidence!"