A Guide to Anxiety Therapy
What Is Anxiety?
Anxiety is a natural stress response that occurs when you’re afraid or worried. You might experience anxiety before boarding a plane, when giving a presentation to your class, or after finding out a coworker was let go. Your anxious thoughts and feelings come and go with the stressful event. Symptoms of anxiety include:
- A sense of impending danger
- Nervous feelings
- Difficulty focusing
- Feeling tired
- Headaches and stomachaches
- Increased heart rate
What Is an Anxiety Disorder?
Anxiety disorders are more than temporary worry or fear — they’re medical conditions that can interfere with your day-to-day life, such as your performance at work or school, your ability to get a decent night’s rest, and your relationships with loved ones.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 40 million American adults (or 19.1% of the adult population) have an anxiety disorder. This means that anxiety disorders are very common and if you have an anxiety disorder, you’re far from alone. More importantly, anxiety disorders are highly treatable using therapy and/or medication.
What Are the Different Types of Anxiety Disorders?
There are different anxiety disorders, which come with specific symptoms — here’s a summary of each:
- Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterized by excessive worry about different life situations and events. Those with GAD often expect and fixate on worst-case scenarios.
- Panic disorder comes with panic attacks, described as the sudden onset of terror and lack of control. Those with panic disorder experience physical symptoms like shortness of breath and increased heart rate, which often leads to mistaking the panic attack for a heart attack.
- Social anxiety disorder is characterized by enormous anxiety in social situations. Those with social anxiety feel embarrassed and self-conscious in social interactions — some avoid social interactions altogether to avoid these uncomfortable feelings.
- Agoraphobia is marked by intense fear and/or avoidance of situations that might make the individual feel stuck or helpless. Often, individuals with agoraphobia develop the condition after having a panic attack.
- Phobias are heightened fears of a specific thing or situation. For example, spiders, snakes, heights, or flying on a plane. Many people with a specific phobia avoid the thing or situation at all costs.
- Separation anxiety is characterized by intense fear when away from a specific person (sometimes, a specific place). This anxiety disorder is most common among young children but also occurs in teens and adults.
- Selective mutism is actually a form of social anxiety, in which the individual cannot speak in social situations. You most commonly see this among kids at school.
In addition, there’s substance- or medication-induced anxiety disorder and anxiety disorder due to another medical condition. The former occurs when the use of or withdrawal from alcohol or drugs causes severe anxiety. The latter is present when another medical condition causes severe anxiety (like pneumonia or cancer).
Anxiety disorders can, and often do, occur alongside other mental or physical illnesses. And some co-occurring problems, like depression or addiction, have the potential to mask anxiety symptoms. In some instances, like in the instance of substance abuse, the co-occurring problem will need to be treated first.
What Causes Anxiety?
Remember, anxiety is a natural stress response and can be triggered by a range of stress-inducing events or experiences. In addition, certain medicine, as well as alcohol and drugs, can make you feel anxious.
When it comes to anxiety disorders, the following can contribute to the development of an anxiety disorder:
- Environment: For example, an individual might go on to develop social anxiety disorder due to a bad experience (or many bad experiences) in a large crowd. Additionally, there is a sentiment among researchers that evolutionarily (or biologically) a human body is designed to live life at a much slower pace and with less stimulus change. The simple fact that our environments are so different today from past lifestyles could be the root of our anxiety.
- Genetics: Certain people are more prone to anxiety disorders because it runs in the family. If any of your family members have had run-ins with GAD, panic disorder, or another anxiety disorder, you’re at a heightened risk.
- Personality: Certain personalities are also more susceptible to anxiety disorders — specifically, type-A personalities. People with type-A personalities are extremely organized and ambitious. They’re also commonly called workaholics. When overwhelmed, these individuals are likely to engage in unhelpful behaviors like procrastinating or staying up all night to get their work done.
- Other mental health conditions: Finally, other mental health conditions can contribute to the development of an anxiety disorder, too. For example, anxiety and depression often co-occur. People with depression often feel scared and anxious, and people with anxiety often feel hopeless and depressed.
Treatment for Anxiety: Therapy and Medication
There is good news: As we said earlier, anxiety disorders are highly treatable. And there are two primary forms of treatment, therapy and medication.
- Therapy: Anxiety therapists can diagnose anxiety and treat your particular case. These professionals work to understand what may have caused your anxiety disorder and help you to better manage your symptoms. They can also offer relaxation techniques as well as coping skills for you to perform at home. While there are different types of therapy that help with anxiety, a common approach is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This approach aims at harmful thinking patterns that lead to negative thoughts and feelings. The cognitive behavioral therapist will help you change the way you react to anxiety-provoking situations. Exposure therapy, a form of CBT, is also effective in treating specific anxiety disorders. In exposure therapy, the individual is gradually exposed to the feared object or situation (such as a spider or small places).
- Medication: Certain medications are also used to treat anxiety and alleviate symptoms. Often, people will take anti-anxiety medication alongside therapy, and once they make substantial progress in therapy, they might wean off of their medication. These individuals are better prepared to manage their anxiety, using the techniques that they learned from their therapist.
Who Should Go to Anxiety Therapy?
If you are struggling with regular anxiety that is affecting your day-to-day life or you suspect that you have an anxiety disorder, you should seek anxiety therapy. A professional can help you better understand your anxiety, offer diagnosis, and develop a treatment plan that helps you better manage your day-to-day anxiety or your anxiety disorder.
Remember throughout the therapy process: Recovery doesn’t always follow a linear path to healing. More often, people will experience their recovery as cyclical. This is a “two steps forward, one step back” motion. You might feel better, then somewhat worse, then better, and so on. Have faith in and throughout the process, and stay on your path toward healing.