Anxiety disorders are generally treated with psychotherapy, medication, or both. There are many ways to treat anxiety and people should work with their doctor to choose the treatment that is best for them.
Psychotherapy or “talk therapy” can help people with anxiety disorders. To be effective, psychotherapy must be directed at the person’s specific anxieties and tailored to his or her needs.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is an example of one type of psychotherapy that can help people with anxiety disorders. It teaches people different ways of thinking, behaving, and reacting to anxiety-producing and fearful objects and situations. CBT can also help people learn and practice social skills, which is vital for treating social anxiety disorder.
Cognitive therapy and exposure therapy are two CBT methods that are often used, together or by themselves, to treat social anxiety disorder. Cognitive therapy focuses on identifying, challenging, and then neutralizing unhelpful or distorted thoughts underlying anxiety disorders. Exposure therapy focuses on confronting the fears underlying an anxiety disorder to help people engage in activities they have been avoiding. Exposure therapy is sometimes used along with relaxation exercises and/or imagery.
CBT can be conducted individually or with a group of people who have similar difficulties. Often “homework” is assigned for participants to complete between sessions.
Medication does not cure anxiety disorders but can help relieve symptoms. Medication for anxiety is prescribed by doctors, such as a psychiatrist or primary care provider. Some states also allow psychologists who have received specialized training to prescribe psychiatric medications. The most common classes of medications used to combat anxiety disorders are anti-anxiety drugs (such as benzodiazepines), antidepressants, and beta-blockers.
Anti-anxiety medications can help reduce the symptoms of anxiety, panic attacks, or extreme fear and worry. The most common anti-anxiety medications are called benzodiazepines. Although benzodiazepines are sometimes used as first-line treatments for generalized anxiety disorder, they have both benefits and drawbacks.
Some benefits of benzodiazepines are that they are effective in relieving anxiety and take effect more quickly than antidepressant medications often prescribed for anxiety. Some drawbacks of benzodiazepines are that people can build up a tolerance to them if they are taken over a long period of time and they may need higher and higher doses to get the same effect. Some people may even become dependent on them.
To avoid these problems, doctors usually prescribe benzodiazepines for short periods of time, a practice that is especially helpful for older adults, people who have substance abuse problems, and people who become dependent on medication easily.
If people suddenly stop taking benzodiazepines, they may have withdrawal symptoms, or their anxiety may return. Therefore, benzodiazepines should be tapered off slowly. When you and your doctor have decided it is time to stop the medication, the doctor will help you slowly and safely decrease your dose.
For long-term use, benzodiazepines are often considered a second-line treatment for anxiety (with antidepressants being considered a first-line treatment) as well as an “as-needed” treatment for any distressing flare-ups of symptoms.
A different type of anti-anxiety medication is buspirone. Buspirone is a non-benzodiazepine medication specifically indicated for the treatment of chronic anxiety, although it does not help everyone.
Antidepressants are used to treat depression, but they can also be helpful for treating anxiety disorders. They may help improve the way your brain uses certain chemicals that control mood or stress. You may need to try several different antidepressant medicines before finding the one that improves your symptoms and has manageable side effects. A medication that has helped you or a close family member in the past will often be considered.
Antidepressants can take time to work, so it’s important to give the medication a chance before reaching a conclusion about its effectiveness. If you begin taking antidepressants, do not stop taking them without the help of a doctor. When you and your doctor have decided it is time to stop the medication, the doctor will help you slowly and safely decrease your dose. Stopping them abruptly can cause withdrawal symptoms.
Antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are commonly used as first-line treatments for anxiety. Less-commonly used — but effective — treatments for anxiety disorders are older classes of antidepressants, such as tricyclic antidepressants and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs).
Please Note: In some cases, children, teenagers, and young adults under 25 may experience an increase in suicidal thoughts or behavior when taking antidepressant medications, especially in the first few weeks after starting or when the dose is changed. Because of this, patients of all ages taking antidepressants should be watched closely, especially during the first few weeks of treatment.
Although beta-blockers are most often used to treat high blood pressure, they can also be used to help relieve the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as rapid heartbeat, shaking, trembling, and blushing. These medications, when taken for a short period of time, can help people keep physical symptoms under control. They can also be used “as needed” to reduce acute anxiety, including as a preventive intervention for some predictable forms of performance anxieties.
Choosing the Right Medication
Some types of drugs may work better for specific types of anxiety disorders, so people should work closely with their doctor to identify which medication is best for them. Certain substances such as caffeine, some over-the-counter cold medicines, illicit drugs, and herbal supplements may aggravate the symptoms of anxiety disorders or interact with prescribed medication. Patients should talk with their doctor, so they can learn which substances are safe and which to avoid.
Choosing the right medication, medication dose, and treatment plan should be done under an expert’s care and should be based on a person’s needs and their medical situation. Your doctor may try several medicines before finding the right one.
You and your doctor should discuss:
- How well medications are working or might work to improve your symptoms
- Benefits and side effects of each medication
- Risk for serious side effects based on your medical history
- The likelihood of the medications requiring lifestyle changes
- Costs of each medication
- Other alternative therapies, medications, vitamins, and supplements you are taking and how these may affect your treatment; a combination of medication and psychotherapy is the best approach for many people with anxiety disorders
- How the medication should be stopped (Some drugs can’t be stopped abruptly and must be tapered off slowly under a doctor’s supervision).
For more information, please visit Mental Health Medications Health Topic webpage. Please note that any information on this website regarding medications is provided for educational purposes only and may be outdated. Diagnosis and treatment decisions should be made in consultation with your doctor. Information about medications changes frequently. Please visit the U.S. Food and Drug Administration website for the latest information on warnings, patient medication guides, or newly approved medications.
Some people with anxiety disorders might benefit from joining a self-help or support group and sharing their problems and achievements with others. Internet chat rooms might also be useful, but any advice received over the internet should be used with caution, as Internet acquaintances have usually never seen each other and what has helped one person is not necessarily what is best for another. You should always check with your doctor before following any treatment advice found on the internet. Talking with a trusted friend or member of the clergy can also provide support, but it is not necessarily a sufficient alternative to care from a doctor or other health professional.
Stress Management Techniques
Stress management techniques and meditation can help people with anxiety disorders calm themselves and may enhance the effects of therapy. Research suggests that aerobic exercise can help some people manage their anxiety; however, exercise should not take the place of standard care and more research is needed.