In today’s world, it would be hard to find someone who could say they are never anxious. (If someone tells you that, don’t believe them!) In reality, anxiety is a natural and universal human experience—so much so that it’s not uncommon for people to use terms like “panic,” “anxiety attack,” or “scared stiff” in everyday conversation when describing fearful moments.
Those with a diagnosed anxiety disorder will tell you, on the other hand, that the anxiety they’re living with is not the same. An anxiety disorder can be disabling, after all. Not only does it negatively impact your body and your mind, it can grow to impede every aspect of your life. In these cases where a person’s anxiety is debilitating, lifestyle changes may reduce stress but usually aren’t enough to help people successfully manage their condition. (Learn more about anxiety treatments at FHE Health.) Often professional help is necessary, starting with a medical check-up with one’s general practitioner.
A Medical Check-Up Is a Good First Step
Obviously, anxiety is real and a normal part of the emotional continuum that human beings (and other creatures, too) are designed to have. Anxiety is very useful if you are out in the woods and a bear is coming. When your body releases chemicals in a “fight or flight” response, triggering anxiety, that anxiety is your friend. It’s helping you escape danger.
But when you’re experiencing anxiety over small things all day long, scheduling a check-up with your general practitioner is a good first step. It’s always a good idea to see a doctor to rule out any physical conditions that may be causing anxiety. There may be a hormone or glandular issue, or other factors such as diet, drug use, or other genetic causes. These should be investigated first.
How Therapy Can Help Anxiety Disorders
Anxiety disorders can be mixed with depressive symptoms, can be acute or chronic, and can literally scare someone into thinking they are dying. Many people go to emergency rooms thinking they are having a heart attack only to learn that their symptoms (that make them feel like they are dying) are anxiety. If fears and anxieties grow unchecked, they can stop a person from functioning at work, home, or school, destroy relationships, and—at the extreme—cause someone to take their own life to stop the suffering.
There are medications that can help with symptoms. But generally, medicine is not the only answer. People are often more willing to take medication than do the hard work of facing and overcoming their fears.
To be honest, therapy is not easy work, but it has so many benefits. Think about the difference between going on a crash diet versus learning a healthy lifestyle and maintaining it. One might get the desired result quickly, but as is generally the case, it does not stick. As an illustration, how many people have lost a lot of weight through diets, surgery, or other means and then yo-yo back to their old weight (or more) because their habits and relationship with food has not changed?
Therapy, unlike medication, provides helpful tools for combating anxiety. People learn how to successfully apply these tools to anxiety-producing situations in their everyday life, with the result that anxiety decreases and/or seems more manageable. For example, research shows talk therapy is very effective at helping people reduce stress, fears, and symptoms of anxiety disorders.
5 Best Therapies for Anxiety
But where to begin? There are some very helpful psychological treatments that you can get from a psychologist, social worker, or counselor that can make a difference and help you feel better. Each of us is different. There may be another therapy, spiritual discipline, or other means that can help, but research shows the following therapies are useful for many:
1. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is the most widely researched therapy on anxiety and depression, and many clinical trials and research studies have found it effective for treating anxiety disorders. There are also many variations on CBT, so one type may be more effective for you. Many therapists and counselors are trained in CBT, which is available in most places. There are even smartphone apps, websites, and books on the subject.
Generally, seeing a therapist will give you a better chance of incorporating the skills needed to address fears and concerns and even more serious anxiety symptoms and disorders. CBT looks at the relationship between thoughts and emotions, so you can learn new ways of processing life events and issues and work to reduce emotional and behavioral responses over time.
2. Cognitive Therapy (CT)/Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT)/Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
CT, REBT, and ACT are slightly different psychological theories, each of which utilizes cognitive-behavioral therapy to help clients overcome anxiety. These approaches can be effective at helping to break a pattern of anxiety-producing thoughts and behaviors in as little as 10-12 weeks.
3. Exposure Therapy
Exposure therapy helps people confront the fears and phobias that are negatively impacting their lives. By allowing someone to experience a situation with tools, skills, and support, this form of therapy has helped many people overcome their aversions to things and situations and learn to reduce their anxiety.
4. Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
This form of therapy incorporates Eastern philosophical skills into a structured program of skill-building to address underlying issues, unhelpful though patterns, and destructive behaviors that may be contributing to anxiety problems. DBT includes individual and group work.
5. Eye Movement Reprocessing and Desensitization (EMDR)
This technique can be especially therapeutic for people who may be suffering from anxiety associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). EMDR helps the brain reprocess anxious and painful thoughts and memories, so that people can learn to see and remember things in a much less disturbing or distressing way.
Consider Joining a Support Group
An anxiety disorder can feel very isolating like you’re all alone—so it can be a great encouragement to participate in a support group where you’re reminded that there are others struggling with the same issues. There are many support groups via organizations like the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and Mental Health America, and others. While these groups will not treat anxiety like a therapist session would, they can provide support and education about how to live with and cope with an anxiety disorder. Often these groups also reinforce good skills and habits that can reduce anxiety symptoms.
Look for what is available in your area and don’t give up. Maybe one therapist doesn’t help, but when you find the right one it can make a world of difference. Whatever you’re able to access—never forget there’s help, and that there are resources available if you need assistance with your anxiety.
This article was written by Dr. Beau A. Nelson, DBH, LCSW, Director of Clinical Services at FHE Health in Florida.