Anxiety is a very wide-spread phenomenon, a natural and to a certain extent self-protective emotion as long as it is related to dangerous or frightening situations. However, when anxiety extends beyond regular, precarious situations, it can develop into a disorder. This is nowadays very frequently the case. The current scientific interest in emotions and affects is certainly underlined by the considerable increase in anxiety disorders which are often recognized too late and in many cases inadequately treated. But even though there is growing interest in anxiety and anxiety disorders, the subjective aspects of patients' suffering and disorders have been neglected so far in scientific research, diagnosis and therapy. There has been no systematic analysis of the discursive procedures used to describe anxiety. Furthermore there has been no attempt to find a relation between the discursive procedures and the different types of disorders.
A specialist group comprising linguists, sociologists, psychiatrists, neurologists, therapists and psychoanalysts has formed at the Centre of Interdisciplinary Research at Bielefeld University to deal with these questions and to open up new perspectives in anxiety research, trying to bring together approaches from various disciplines. The main difference between this group's work and other research on anxiety constitutes taking into account the way patients verbalize their feelings of anxiety, how they describe panic attacks or the situations which are related to all sorts of fear.
The study is concerned with three groups of patients: patients suffering from epilepsy with anxiety auras, from panic attacks or social fear. Conversations between these patients and doctors or psychotherapists are recorded on video-tape, transcribed and analysed from a conversation analytic perspective. This means that all kinds of linguistic details - even small and apparently insignificant ones - have to be observed and prosodic as well as non-verbal phenomena have to be included in the study.
On the basis of these analyses the group will try to work out a typology of the communicative forms used in describing anxiety. These types will be related to neuro-biological models of the origin of anxiety, their psychodynamic background and to the possibilities of psychotherapeutic treatment , e.g. using a behavioural and/or in-depth psychological approach. A pilot project has shown the differences in the narrative reconstruction of anxiety in panic disorders and epileptic auras. Further investigation should try to establish whether these reconstruction forms are related to different forms of activation of the brain as shown in computerized axial tomography.
This work presents a wide range of questions: From a conversation analytical point of view, it is asked whether specific discourse patterns can be identified and used for diagnosis. From a neurological perspective, the question is if certain manifestations of anxiety activation can be related to certain areas of the brain. From a clinical therapeutic point of view: Can the way patients communicate their fears provide methods of various therapeutic treatments?
The group's research thus contributes to fundamental scientific questions, while at the same time being directed towards the use of its results in a medical and/or therapeutic context. Hopefully a better understanding of the forms of communicating anxiety will help considerably in achieving a clearer understanding of anxiety itself.