Treating Anxiety Disorders
Fortunately, great progress has been made over the last two decades in treating people with anxiety disorders. Although the exact treatment approach depends on the type of disorder, most respond well to therapy or a combination of the therapy and medication.
The first step in treatment should be a consultation with the family doctor. The physician should conduct a complete physical exam and diagnostic evaluation to determine whether a person’s symptoms are caused by an anxiety disorder or a physical problem. If an anxiety disorder is diagnosed, the specific disorder or combination of disorders must be identified as well as any coexisting conditions, such as depression or substance abuse.
Psychotherapy involves talking with a trained mental health professional such as a social worker, counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist to discover what caused an anxiety disorder and how to deal with its symptoms.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) helps a person learn to recognize the thinking patterns and beliefs that fuel their anxiety and change the way they think and respond to anxiety-inducing situations. Over time, this new way of thinking and responding helps reduce the fear a situation produces. For example, a person with panic disorder would learn to recognize that his or her panic attacks are a symptom of their anxiety disorder and not a heart attack and then practice the calming skills they’ve learned working with a CBT therapist. Some of the strategies CBT therapists teach to modify thoughts and responses include journaling, role-playing, relaxation techniques and mental distractions, and are often assigned as homework outside of therapy sessions. To be effective, therapy must be conducted with the person’s cooperation and directed at his or her specific anxieties.
Exposure therapy is a treatment that encourages people with anxiety disorders to confront their fears in a safe, controlled environment. Through repeated exposure to the feared object or situation, either in one’s imagination or in reality, they gain a greater sense of control because they face their fear without being harmed. As a result, their anxiety gradually diminishes.
Medication does not cure an anxiety disorder, but it can help keep symptoms under control. The most common medications used are antidepressants (such as SSRIs, tricyclics and MAOIs), anti-anxiety drugs (benzodiazepines) and beta-blockers.
Before taking any medication for an anxiety disorder:
- Ask your doctor to tell you about the effects and side effects of the drug.
- Tell your doctor about any alternative therapies or over-the-counter medications you are using.
- Ask your doctor when and how the medication should be stopped. Some drugs can’t be stopped abruptly, but must be tapered off slowly under a doctor’s supervision.
- Work with your doctor to determine which medicatino is right for you and what dosage is best.
- Be aware that some medications are effective only if taken regularly and that symptoms may recur if the medication is stopped.
(Source: National Institute of Mental Health)
Many people with anxiety disorders also benefit from joining a self-help or support groups and sharing their problems and achievements with others. Stress management techniques and meditation can also help people with anxiety disorders calm themselves and may enhance the effects of therapy. Preliminary evidence also suggests that aerobic exercise may have a calming effect as well.
The support of family and friends is very important to the recovery of a person with an anxiety disorder. Ideally, family and friends should encourage their loved one as they progress through therapy and learn new coping skills rather than trivialize the disorder or demand immediate improvement.