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Anxiety Disorders: The Role of the Occupational Therapist

It is perfectly normal for anyone to feel a little anxiety during their life. Think about how you feel before giving a presentation, when you enter the doctor’s office, when you start a new job, the day before a major sports match, etc. However, this anxiety becomes a disorder when it causes personal suffering and prevents the person from functioning in society, at work or in any other area of everyday life.

Since the daily activities of people with anxiety disorders are affected, the occupational therapist becomes an important player in their rehabilitation. Here is an overview to better understand the anxiety disorders and the involvement of the occupational therapist in mental health.

What is anxiety disorder?

As mentioned above, anxiety becomes a disorder when it gives way to a state of malaise and reaches the daily activities of a person. Specifically, this disorder is diagnosed by physicians according to six criteria in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-5 (DSM-5):

1. Anxiety and excessive worry occurring mostly for at least six months regarding several events or activities.
2. Difficulty controlling this concern.
3. Anxiety and worry are associated with at least three of the following six symptoms (only one symptom is required in the child): restlessness or feeling of being overcharged or exhausted, fatigability, difficulty of concentration or memory, irritability, muscle tension, sleep disturbance.
4. Anxiety, worry, or physical symptoms result in clinically significant suffering or impairment of social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
5. The disturbance is not due to the direct physiological effects of a substance or a general medical condition.
6. The disturbance is not better explained by another mental disorder.

How can occupational therapy help in the rehabilitation of anxiety disorder?

Because the anxiety disorder prevents the person who suffers from it from doing his daily activities and occupations, and because the role of the occupational therapist is to help people to participate and to realize themselves in the meaningful activities, it is interesting to consider occupational therapy among professionals services with an impact in the rehabilitation of people with anxiety disorders. Here are some things an occupational therapist can do:

Teach stress management strategies

The occupational therapist accompanies the person to recognize the symptoms associated with stress and to incorporate strategies to manage their symptoms daily. Whether guided meditation, the practice of breathing techniques (Manuguerra-Gagné, 2017) and relaxation or the application of the mindfulness approach, stress management is essential in the rehabilitation of people in taken with an anxiety disorder.

Promote the integration of a satisfactory sleep routine

Because sleep has a big impact on the mood, the occupational therapist’s role is to promote a good sleep. The occupational therapist considers personal factors (sleep positions, preferences, etc.), environmental factors (bedroom, lighting, etc.) and activities surrounding sleep (meal times, activities carried out before bedtime, naps, etc.) to create with his client a routine conducive to a better sleep.

Establish a balanced work schedule by integrating meaningful activities and physical exercise

It is not easy for some people to take time for themselves every day. To resume a drawing after having stopped several years ago, to start the courses of photography that we always wanted to do, to realize our favorite recipe that our mother transmitted to us, to walk to the park because nature inspires us, are only a few examples of activities that often make a big difference to our emotional state. Also, integrating a physical activity on a regular basis into your schedule can only be beneficial. The benefits of physiological and psychological exercises are well known: decreased risk of chronic diseases and heart disease, increased attention, concentration and other brain functions, maintenance of good mental health, improved sleep, reduced stress, etc. (Government of Quebec, 2018). The occupational therapist guides his client to organize and set up these types of positive activities to the extent of his skills and to increase the feeling of his self-confidence.

Prepare for the return work

The return to work is often the final step and the biggest challenge for people with anxiety disorders who have stopped working. The occupational therapist gradually prepares his client for return to work by identifying obstacles (eg. fears of relapse, work overload, conflicting relationships, etc.) and by addressing them via, for example, exposure to simulations of work tasks, get back in touch with colleagues or planning a meeting at work with the people involved. The purpose of these interventions is to help the person return to work satisfactorily and sustainably.

Well, the occupational therapist can be an ally in the active rehabilitation of people with anxiety disorders, all by ensuring close collaboration with different partners (eg doctors, psychologist, insurance company, etc.)

For more information, contact the occupational therapists of our clinics.

By Vanessa Daoust, occupational therapist for the Pointe-Claire Universal Physiotherapy Clinic.

Reading suggestions (in french only):

Par amour du stress by Sonia Lupien
Pensouillard le hamster by Serge Marquis


Manuguerra-Gagné, R., (2017). Spotted at

Gouvernement du Québec, (2018). Spotted at


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