Treatments for anxiety
Treatments for anxiety disorders vary depending on the nature of a person’s disorder and their individual preferences. Often, treatment will combine different types of therapy and medication.
When a person has anxiety, recognizing the symptoms and taking steps to manage the condition without medical assistance is often the first course of action.
However, if self-management does not reduce the severity of symptoms, or if the onset is particularly sudden or intense, a person can turn to therapy or medication.
This article discusses at-home and medical treatments to help alleviate anxiety symptoms.
What is anxiety?
Most people experience stress at different points in their lives. However, stress is a physiological response to a biological injury or a perceived threat, and it tends to be relatively short term.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is the anticipation of a perceived threat in the form of worry and stress.
If anxiety is chronic and severe enough to interfere with a person’s ability to live their life, they may have an anxiety disorder.
There are different types of anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder and social anxiety disorder. These disorders are included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM–5).
Symptoms of different types of anxiety disorders can include:
- excessive feelings of worry
- stomach pain
- difficulty concentrating
- pounding heart
Learn more about the types and symptoms of anxiety disorders.
How prevalent is anxiety?
According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, 18.1% of American adults have an anxiety disorder, which represents about 40 million people. Of these, only 36.9% receive treatment.
Globally, there have been 76.2 million additional cases of anxiety disorder since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The rise has been higher among women than men. Research shows that the largest increase in the rate of anxiety occurred at the start of the pandemic among Black and African American people.
Alcohol use disorder, depression, and other conditions can have a strong link to anxiety. Some people must first manage an underlying condition before treating their anxiety disorder.
In milder cases, or in cases that do not qualify as an anxiety disorder, a person may be able to manage anxiety at home without clinical supervision.
In a study on lifestyle changes and mental health, factors such as quitting smoking, eating healthfully, exercising regularly, and maintaining regular social connections had a positive influence on the participants’ mental health, including their stress levels.
Some strategies a person can also use to cope with anxiety include:
- managing triggers that can lead to stress, such as keeping an eye on work pressures and deadlines, organizing daunting tasks in to-do lists, and taking regular time off from professional or educational obligations
- using relaxation techniques, such as deep-breathing exercises, long baths, mindfulness meditation, yoga, and resting in the dark
- maintaining a support network by talking with family members, friends, or a support group and avoiding storing up anxious feelings, as this can worsen anxiety disorders
- getting regular physical exercise, which can improve self-image and trigger the release of chemicals in the brain that stimulate positive emotions
- reducing or limiting the consumption of alcohol and other recreational drugs, including nicotine, caffeine, and cannabis
- getting at least 6 hours of sleep a night, which may make a person 2.5 times less likely to experience mental distress
- eating a balanced, nutritious diet that includes nutrients such as omega-3 fatty acids, zinc, magnesium, and vitamin B
Counseling and therapy
The standard treatment for anxiety disorders involves psychological counseling and therapy.
This might include psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), or a combination of different therapy modalities.
CBT aims to recognize and alter the harmful thought patterns that can trigger symptoms of anxiety, limit distorted thinking, and change the scale and intensity of reactions to stressors.
This helps people manage the way they react to certain triggers. A therapist who practices CBT can help a person develop cognitive exercises that replace negative thoughts with positive ones.
For example, a person can write down a list of any negative thoughts and make another list of positive thoughts to replace them. If an individual’s anxiety symptoms relate to a specific stressor, they may benefit from picturing themself facing and conquering that specific fear.
Psychotherapy is another treatment that involves talking with a trained mental health professional and working to understand the root of an anxiety disorder. Sessions might explore the triggers of anxiety and possible coping mechanisms.
Other types of therapy for anxiety include exposure therapy and psychodynamic therapy.
Learn more about different types of therapy.
Several types of medication can support the treatment of an anxiety disorder. These include:
- Tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs): These medications have demonstrated effectiveness in treating most anxiety disorders other than obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). However, these drugs may cause side effects such as drowsiness, dizziness, and weight gain. Two examples of tricyclics are imipramine and clomipramine.
- Serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRI): While antidepressants are most commonly prescribed to manage depression, doctors may prescribe SSRIs or SNRIs to treat anxiety disorders. These are still likely to cause side effects, such as nausea and sexual dysfunction.
- Benzodiazepines: Only available via prescription, these can be highly addictive and would rarely be the first-line medication. Diazepam (Valium) is an example of a common benzodiazepine for people with anxiety.
Other types of medication used to treat anxiety include beta-blockers, monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), and buspirone.
Medications can provide offer benefits to people with anxiety. However, a person who begins to take medications for anxiety should be cautious about not stopping them abruptly.
Some medications, especially antidepressants like SSRIs or SNRIs, can cause withdrawal symptoms, which can include brain zaps. These are painful jolts in the head that feel like shocks of electricity.
Individuals planning to adjust their approach to treating anxiety disorders after a long period of taking antidepressants should consult their doctor about how best to move away from these medications.
If severe, adverse, or unexpected effects occur after taking any prescribed medications, a person should notify their doctor immediately.
Learn more about anxiety medications.
Treating an anxiety disorder focuses on psychological therapy, medication, and lifestyle adjustments. Treatment will be different for each person depending on the type of anxiety disorder they have and the presence of any underlying conditions.
Self-management is the first step toward addressing anxious feelings and often involves relaxation techniques, an active lifestyle, and effective time management. If these measures do not bring anxious reactions under control, a person should consider speaking with a doctor and seek other avenues of treatment.
If anxious reactions are severe from the outset — for example, manifesting as panic attacks — a person should seek treatment.
Psychological therapies, including CBT, can help individuals adjust the way they react to stressful life events and triggers. They can also help limit distorted thinking and replace negative thoughts.
Medications that can support treatment include tricyclic medications, antidepressants, beta-blockers, and benzodiazepines. A person should speak with a doctor about any severe side effects or withdrawal symptoms related to anxiety medication.
Frequently asked questions
What causes anxiety?
The central nervous system, which includes the brain, controls the body’s response to stress and anxiety. One theory is that in people with anxiety, the part of the brain known as the amygdala reacts excessively to triggers in the person’s environment. Researchers do not quite know why this happens but theorize that it can have genetic, biological, or psychological causes.
How is anxiety diagnosed?
To determine whether a person has anxiety, a doctor will assess for a range of cognitive, physical, and behavioral symptoms. To be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, a person needs to demonstrate specific symptoms, which are outlined in the DSM-5. Depending on the specific type of anxiety disorder, the criteria for diagnosis vary.
How do I treat an anxiety attack?
An anxiety attack is a sudden worsening of symptoms of anxiety. It can be similar to a panic attack but is generally less intense. Strategies a person can use to help stop an anxiety attack include taking long, deep breaths, splashing water on the face, and repeating calming language, such as “I am safe.”
“name”: “What causes anxiety?”,
“text”: “The central nervous system, which includes the brain, controls the body’s response to stress and anxiety. One theory is that in people with anxiety, the part of the brain known as the amygdala reacts excessively to triggers in the person’s environment. Researchers do not quite know why this happens but theorize that it can have genetic, biological, or psychological causes.”
“name”: “How is anxiety diagnosed?”,
“text”: “To determine whether a person has anxiety, a doctor will assess for a range of cognitive, physical, and behavioral symptoms. To be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, a person needs to demonstrate specific symptoms, which are outlined in the DSM-5. Depending on the specific type of anxiety disorder, the criteria for diagnosis vary.”
“name”: “How do I treat an anxiety attack?”,
“text”: “An anxiety attack is a sudden worsening of symptoms of anxiety. It can be similar to a panic attack but is generally less intense. Strategies a person can use to help stop an anxiety attack include taking long, deep breaths, splashing water on the face, and repeating calming language, such as “I am safe.””