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Dr. Richard McNally

Anxiety is one of the most commonly experienced psychological phenomena on earth. Not everyone’s occurrence of anxiety is the same though. Despite the fact that we all have encountered moments in our lives where we’ve felt worry or dwelled on future threats, not all of our anxieties become pathological. According to Dr. Richard McNally, Professor and Director of Clinical Training at Harvard University, explains that “anxiety disorders are conditions where a person’s anxiety is disproportionate to the magnitude of the threatening event that the person envisions might happen to them.” These disproportions tend to be chronic, repetitive, and generally impair the person’s life. Most anxieties fall into one of a few categories, such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, phobias, and a few more. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) once fell under anxiety disorders, but after the latest iteration of the DSM-5 (2013), they were shuffled into different categories. The broad range of symptoms include feeling restless, getting easily fatigued, being irritable, having difficulty concentrating, headaches, and difficulty controlling feelings of worry. It’s once these symptoms push you past a threshold where your work, school, or personal life is dysfunctional where professional help is suggested.

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During our conversation, Dr. McNally goes on to describe the types of situations you might find yourself in that can be tell-tale signs of these disproportionate encounters of anxiety. In one of his lab's studies, he found that individuals who are diagnosed with social anxiety are making over-exaggerated inferences about social situations, specifically in the area of Theory of Mind (Hezel & McNally, 2014). ("Theory of Mind" refers to the capacity to understand other people by ascribing mental states to them.) These individuals were reading much more into social scenes and over-interpreting certain cues. Thus, causing increased symptoms to flood that person and finally making social interactions associated with negative experiences. These unique instances of social anxiety is just one example of how anxiety can throw us into overload when overcompensating for what may be happening in social settings.

"People with PTSD, GAD, and social anxiety tend to have
a sort of bias for threat".

It's evident that there are numeous ways anxiety can tip into the direction of being "abnormal". However, how can we ensure that the symptoms of anxiety, independent of a diagnosis, won't take a hold of our lives negatively? Dr. McNally provides insight into how clues from the cognitive psychlogy realm may help. Working with the way you think about certain events or occurences may help you combat symptoms of anxiety (Mansell, 2004). There are many ways in which one can reframe or conjure differnt meanings from past or future situations. Many psychologist believe herein lie the answers. To hear about these topics and more from my conversation with Dr. McNally, click the link below.

(Recorded August 2021.) 


Hezel, D.M., and McNally, R.J. (2014). Theory of mind impairments in social anxiety disorder. Behavior Therapy. 45(4), pp. 530-540. DOI: 10.1016/j.beth.2014.02.010

Mansell, W. (2004). Cognitive psychology and anxiety. Psychiatry. 3(4), pp. 6-10. Retrieved from:

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Dr. Richard McNally - Anxiety
00:00 / 33:33

Books by Dr. McNally

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