Treating Anxiety Disorders: What to Do When Worries Take Over

When anxious thoughts are causing unhealthy levels of stress or fear, it’s time to reach out for help. Learn how lifestyle changes, psychotherapy or medications could help you manage your symptoms.
Female adult sitting on bench in park

Anxiety is a normal, human response we all feel at different points and stressful situations in our lives. Presenting in front of an audience or awaiting the results of a test can be anxiety-provoking experiences. Feeling worried, apprehensive or anxious is your body's healthy and natural reaction to stress or fear. Anxiety disorders, however, involve unhealthy reactions to stress or fear, and usually require some form of treatment or therapy for symptoms to subside and become manageable.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorder in the United States. Nearly 20% of the population will experience some level of anxiety disorder, with onset of symptoms typically occurring before age 21.

What Are the Main Symptoms of an Anxiety Disorder?

A characteristic response to anxiety is avoidance, which can significantly affect a person's relationships, work life or school performance. So avoidance of situations that may cause anxiety or fear is a key behavioral symptom. Here are other common symptoms of anxiety disorders:

  • Feelings of dread or foreboding
  • Apprehension
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Anticipation of the worst happening
  • Dwelling on things going wrong or other negative thoughts

Anxious thoughts can cause physical symptoms as well. These can include:

  • Headache
  • Backache
  • Upset stomach, nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Sweating
  • Racing heart
  • Shaking
  • Sleeplessness
  • Mind going blank
  • Muscle tension

How Can I Tell If I Might Have an Anxiety Disorder?

As a general rule, symptoms must be present more days than not and for a period of at least six months. The main symptoms involve finding it difficult to control worrisome thoughts and having physical symptoms that cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning. Be sure to consult with your health care provider in order to rule out other potential causes, such as substance use, medications or hormone imbalance.

Are There Different Types of Anxiety Disorders?

Yes, these disorders fall on a mild-to-severe spectrum and range in scope from generalized anxiety disorder to very specific syndromes, such as phobias. While the different types of anxiety disorders share some common symptoms, each condition differs in key aspects.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

People who have generalized anxiety disorder typically have a chronic, exaggerated worry about everyday life. This preoccupation with worry can interfere with concentration and functioning in everyday activities.

Social Anxiety Disorder

Social anxiety disorder is more than shyness, self-consciousness or identifying as an introvert. Social anxiety tends to come from a fear of humiliation or embarrassment. Social isolation and withdrawal is the result. When stressful social situations can't be avoided, the heightened fear can cause panic attacks.

Panic Disorder

Panic disorder is characterized by panic attacks or feelings of sudden terror. These attacks can come without warning or reason. People often describe the physical reaction much like symptoms of a heart attack: tightening in their chest, shortness of breath, racing heart rate and dizziness. Because panic attacks come on suddenly and often without an apparent cause, people who've had the experience tend to isolate themselves in order to avoid having one in public or in potentially dangerous situations, such as driving.

Phobias

Phobias are irrational fears triggered by a particular situation, thing, place or object. Common phobias include fear of snakes, rats, spiders, elevators, heights, flying and tight spaces. Phobias can cause people to take extreme measures in order to avoid encountering the object of their fear.

Agoraphobia

Agoraphobia is characterized by a fear of being in a situation that's impossible to escape, potentially triggering a panic attack. The fear is out of proportion to the situation and causes impairment in daily functioning. A person with a severe case of agoraphobia may even fear leaving the house.

Separation Anxiety Disorder

Separation anxiety is the fear of being away from someone an individual is attached to, such as a family member. Separation anxiety disorder can also involve a preoccupation with losing someone close to you or being unable to function without that person in your life. An individual with separation anxiety disorder may insist, for example, that the person they're attached to not leave the home without them.

How Can I Reduce the Symptoms of an Anxiety Disorder?

As with any health concern, start by considering your daily routines and practices. Do you exercise regularly? Get good sleep? Eat nutritious foods? Stick to normal schedule? These are all effective ways to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. Limiting the intake of alcohol, caffeine and other mood-altering substances can make a big difference, too.

You can also practice grounding techniques designed to distract and redirect anxious thinking. Here are some examples:

  • Describe something you see, hear, feel, smell or taste in detail. Focus on your surroundings.
  • Do math problems or use numbers in other ways.
  • Play a memory game.
  • Think of items in a category, such as musical instruments in an orchestra, animals in a zoo or football teams in a league.
  • Recite a poem while visualizing each word and focusing on the words as you form them.
  • Visualize an activity you completed, such as a past golf game, a chore you did or a trip you took.
  • Describe your surroundings in specific detail, such as the bird on the branch, the color of the park bench, the cars at the traffic light.
  • Sit with your pet and focus on the feeling of its fur, the color of its eyes or other characteristics.

Learning to meditate is another effective way of coping with stress-related challenges and anxious thinking. Meditation practices calm the mind through focus and attention. You can find free apps and other resources to guide meditation, deep breathing and other relaxation practices.

Other natural ways to treat anxiety include herbal remedies and supplements. However, many natural remedies are unproven in terms of effectiveness and can have negative side effects. Consult with your health care provider before using herbal remedies for any health problem.

How Are Anxiety Disorders Treated?

Medical providers and therapists typically diagnose anxiety by discussing symptoms with the patient. Some providers also use diagnostic screening tools such as questionnaires or scales to focus more closely on specific symptoms. If you are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, your recommended treatment could involve:

Talk Therapy (Psychotherapy)

Mental health clinicians are trained in a number of therapies designed to help patients learn to cope with or manage symptoms. These may include mindfulness techniques, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and others.

Medications

Anti-anxiety medications and antidepressant drugs are commonly prescribed to relieve symptoms.

Adjunctive Therapies

Adjunctive Therapies - Relaxation techniques, meditation, yoga, and equine or canine therapy can help to address symptoms.

I Think I Have Social Anxiety Disorder. Where Can I Find Anxiety Treatment or Anxiety Therapy?

Effective treatment for an anxiety disorder—whether it's generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder or a specific phobia—begins with a mental health assessment. Primary care physicians or other health care providers can conduct what's considered a brief assessment or, in a more severe case, make a referral to a mental health center or clinic for diagnosis and treatment planning. Trained and licensed psychologists and mental health therapists have the expertise to conduct thorough assessments of anxiety symptoms, develop individualized treatment plans and provide counseling. You may also receive a recommendation to see a psychiatrist to determine whether medication or other therapies are advised. Psychiatrists are medical doctors with specialized training in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders.

How Long Does Anxiety Disorder Treatment Take?

The length of time to treat an anxiety disorder depends on a number of different factors, including the extent and severity of symptoms. Medication effectiveness and adherence to the treatment plan also impact treatment duration. Some patients experience relief for a period of time only to have symptoms return later in life. Treatment and therapy may be intermittent throughout life, as symptoms arise and subside. For people struggling with addiction, rehab anxiety may prevent them from seeking treatment. Treating anxiety in rehab requires different amounts of time depending on the individual.

How Effective Is Anxiety Treatment?

Mental health professionals have identified many evidence-based, proven-effective treatment methods for the treatment of anxiety disorders. In other words, anxiety disorders are highly treatable. Learn more about evidence-based therapies and how these treatment approaches can help you regain control of your life and well-being.

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