In some cases, medications can treat anxiety disorders. But for many people, treatment alone or in combination with drugs is the most effective treatment option. The reason is that treatment is different from medication. It provides you with the tools to manage your anxiety now and in the future.
Different treatment techniques have been developed to treat anxiety disorders and have evolved over time from psychoanalytic methods to the latest cognitive behavioral therapies.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), about 19% of American adults and 31% of 13 to 18-year-olds experience anxiety each year.There are several main types of anxiety disorders that can be treated with treatments, including:
Regardless of the specific disease, the underlying processes that drive them often follow a similar pattern. People with anxiety tend to react to unpleasant thoughts, feelings, and situations in more extreme ways, and may try to control these reactions by avoiding triggers. Unfortunately, this avoidance only exacerbates fear and worry. Most modern therapies address negative thinking and avoidance problems to help you control anxiety.
Types of treatment for anxiety disorders
The goal of all treatments is to help you understand why you feel this way, what the triggers are, and how to change your response to them. Certain types of treatments even teach practical skills to help you restructure negative thinking and change your behavior.
Anxiety disorders vary greatly, so treatment is tailored to your specific symptoms and diagnosis. It can be carried out in an individual, family, couple or group environment. The frequency and duration of your meetings with the therapist will depend on your specific symptoms and diagnosis.
Psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental health experts use many types of anxiety therapies. The choice of treatment also depends on your diagnosis and the severity of your symptoms.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most widely used therapy for anxiety disorders. Studies have found that it can effectively treat diseases such as SAD, GAD, phobia and panic disorder.
The premise of CBT is that your thoughts—not your current situation—will affect your feelings and subsequent behavior. Therefore, the goal of CBT is to identify and understand your negative thinking and invalid behavior patterns, and replace them with more realistic ideas and effective actions and coping mechanisms.
During this process, your therapist will teach you useful strategies like a coach. For example, you might do a lot of “black and white” thinking, assuming things are bad or good. Instead, you will replace these ideas with a more realistic view, that is, there are many shades of gray in the middle.
Using these strategies requires practice. Once you begin to recognize your anxiety and triggers, you can learn to apply the coping skills you learned in CBT to manage fear, panic, and worry.
Exposure therapy is one of the most common CBT methods used to treat various anxiety disorders, including specific phobias, SAD and PTSD. The basic premise behind exposure therapy is that if you are afraid of something, the best way to overcome it is to face it.
During exposure therapy, your therapist will slowly introduce you to objects or conditions that cause anxiety. This is usually done using a technique called “system desensitization”, which consists of three steps:
- Relaxation: Your therapist will teach you relaxation training to help you fight anxiety. Examples of relaxation training include progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, meditation, and guided imagery.
- List: Create a list of your anxiety triggers and rank them by intensity.
- Exposure: In this final step, you will gradually address the listed anxiety-causing objects or situations and use relaxation techniques when necessary.
Your psychologist may choose a variety of ways to expose you to anxiety-causing stimuli. The following are the most common:
- Imagine exposure: In this type of exposure, you will be asked to vividly imagine the object or situation that causes anxiety.
- In vivo exposure: In this method, you will face objects or situations that cause anxiety in real life. Therefore, through this type of exposure, people with social anxiety disorder may be instructed to give a speech in front of an audience.
- Virtual reality exposure: In some cases, when in-vivo exposure is not possible, virtual reality can be used. Virtual reality therapy uses technology to combine elements exposed in the body and imagination. Facts have proved that this method is particularly useful for soldiers and other people with PTSD.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy
Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a highly effective CBT. DBT was originally used to treat borderline personality disorder (BPD) and is now used to treat various diseases, including anxiety.
DBT focuses on helping you cultivate what seems to be “dialectical” (opposite) views, acceptance, and change. During DBT treatment, you will learn to accept your anxiety while actively working to change it. This is similar to the concept of loving yourself while still trying to make yourself better.
DBT therapy teaches four powerful skills:
- Mindfulness: keep in touch with the present moment, and pay attention to the thoughts conveyed (such as anxiety) without being dominated by them
- Pain tolerance: manage your anxiety in the face of stress
- Interpersonal efficiency: learn how to say no, or ask what you need
- Emotion regulation: managing anxiety before losing control
Acceptance and commitment therapy
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is another therapy that has been proven effective for many anxiety disorders. ACT involves determining your values in life and then acting in a way that matches your values.
Art therapy is a nonverbal, experience-oriented therapy. It involves using visual arts (such as painting, sketching, sculpting) to express and process emotions, or using art to practice mindfulness and relaxation. Although it can be provided as a stand-alone treatment, it is often used in combination with other treatments such as CBT.
As a newer form of treatment, more research is needed to confirm its effectiveness in reducing anxiety symptoms.
According to this Freudian model, anxiety symptoms reflect unconscious conflict. The purpose of psychoanalytic therapy is to solve them. In psychoanalysis, you and your therapist check your thoughts, fears, and desires to better understand how you view yourself and reduce your anxiety. This is one of the most intensive forms of treatment; it can take years to recognize patterns in your way of thinking.
The terms “psychoanalysis” and “psychodynamic therapy” are often used interchangeably, but psychoanalysis is actually a subset of psychodynamic therapy.
Interpersonal Relationship Therapy (IPT) focuses on social roles and relationships. In IPT, you will work with your therapist to determine any interpersonal problems you may have, such as unresolved grief, conflicts with family or friends, changes in work or social roles, and issues related to others. Then, you will learn healthy ways of expressing emotions and ways to improve communication with others.
Although it was originally developed to treat major depression, if your anxiety is mainly related to your relationship with others, as in the case of SAD, you can use IPT.
What to expect from treatment
A common misconception about treatment is that you will start to feel better immediately. This is sometimes the case. But many times, you will feel worse before you start to feel better. Surprisingly, feeling worse is usually a sign of progress. If you think about it, it makes sense.
When you decide to receive treatment, it is usually because you cannot overcome anxiety alone. Treatment involves exploring your anxiety and the reasons behind it in a deeper and more meaningful way. This may cause your anxiety to spike temporarily.
Treatment should never be seen as a quick solution. This is a unique process for everyone. The type of treatment you need, the skills you learn, and the length of time you receive treatment all depend on the type of anxiety you have and the severity of your symptoms.
It is important to understand that although this process does not always feel good, it is totally worth it in the end.
How to make the most of treatment
Trying to make changes can be a challenge. Receiving treatment for anxiety disorders is no exception. However, if you persevere, you should see improvement.
Here are a few ways to get the most out of your treatment-and actually see some results:
- Don’t pretend to be okay
- ask questions
- Tell your therapist anything
- Do work outside of your meeting
- Focus on your goals
- Practice healthy lifestyle choices
- Make sure you have a social support system
- Relieve stress in life that exacerbates anxiety
In this way, you can see that working hard and being present during the entire treatment process will have the greatest impact on your results.
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If you are living with anxiety and it impairs your daily functions, it is important to seek help from your doctor or mental health professional. If you are diagnosed with anxiety, you can develop an effective treatment plan that includes one of the above therapies to help you overcome symptoms and control anxiety.