There are many highly effective treatment options available for anxiety and anxiety-related disorders. These treatments can be broadly categorized as: 1) Psychotherapy; 2) Medications; and 3) Complementary and Alternative Therapies. Patients diagnosed with anxiety can benefit from one or a combination of these various therapies. Discussions of emerging therapies and types of care providers are also included.
Counseling is a form of talk therapy in which a mental healthcare provider helps patients develop strategies and coping skills to address specific issues like stress management or interpersonal problems. Counseling is generally designed to be a short-term therapy.
There are many types of psychotherapies used to treat anxiety. Unlike counseling, psychotherapy is more long-term and targets a broader range of issues such as patterns of behavior. The patient's particular anxiety diagnosis and personal preference guides what therapies would be best suited to treat them. The ultimate goal with any type of psychotherapy, is to help the patient regulate their emotions, manage stress, understand patterns in behavior that affect their interpersonal relationships. Evidenced-based therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE), and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) are some of the most effective at treating anxiety.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is a short-term treatment designed to help patients identify inaccurate and negative thinking in situations that cause anxiety like panic attacks. CBT can be used in one-on-one therapy or in a group therapy session with people facing similar problems. CBT primarily focuses on the ongoing problems in a patient's life and helps them develop new ways of processing their feelings, thoughts and behaviors to develop more effective ways of coping with their life. In patients who suffer from PTSD, CBT can take on a trauma-focused approach, where the goal is to process and reframe the traumatic experience that lead to the symptoms. On average, the length of treatment is around 10-15 weekly one-hour sessions depending on the type and severity of symptoms.
Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE)
Prolonged exposure therapy is a specific type of CBT used to treat PTSD and phobias. The goal of this therapy is to help patients overcome the overwhelming distress they experience when reminded of past traumas or in confronting their fears. With the guidance of a licensed therapist, the patient is carefully reintroduced to the trauma memories or reminders. During the exposure, the therapist guides the patient to use coping techniques such as mindfulness or relaxation therapy/imagery. The goal of this therapy is to help patients realize that trauma-related memories (or phobias) are no longer dangerous and do not need to be avoided. This type of treatment usually lasts 8-16 weekly sessions.
Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR)
EMDR is a psychotherapy that alleviates the distress and emotional disturbances that are elicited from the memories of traumatic events. It is primarily administered to treat PTSD, and is very similar to exposure therapy. This therapy helps patients to process the trauma so that they can heal. During the therapy, patients pay attention to a back and forth movement or sound while recounting their traumatic memories. Patients continue these sessions until the memory becomes less distressing. EMDR sessions typically last 50-90 minutes and are administered weekly for 1-3 months, although many patients report experiencing a reduction of symptoms after a few sessions of EMDR.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)
DBT uses a skills-based approach to help patients regulate their emotions. It is a prefered treatment for Borderline Personality Disorder, but call also be effective for anxiety disorders such as PTSD. This treatment teaches patients how to develop skills for how to regulate their emotions, stress-management, mindfulness, and interpersonal effectiveness. It was developed to be employed in either one-on-one therapy sessions or group sessions. This type of therapy is typically long-term and patients are usually in treatment for a year or more.
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
ACT is a type of CBT that encourages patients to engage again in positive behaviors even in the presence of negative thoughts and behaviors. The goal is to improve daily functioning despite having the disorder. It is particularly useful for treatment-resistant Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Depression. The length of treatment varies depending on the severity of symptoms.
Family Therapy is a type of group therapy that includes the patient's family to help them improve communication and develop better skills for solving conflicts. This therapy is useful if the family is contributing to the patient's anxiety. During this short-term therapy, the patient's family learns how not to make the anxiety symptoms worse and to better understand the patient. The length of treatment varies depending on the severity of symptoms.
Medications are sometimes used in conjunction with psychotherapy. The most commonly prescribed medications are generally safe, although some do have side effects to consider. The specific type of medication administered to patients will be determined by their providers based on the patient's specific symptoms and other factors like general health.
Antidepressants are medications used to treat symptoms of depression but can also used to treat anxiety symptoms as well. In particular, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are the primary class of antidepressant used to treat anxiety. SSRIs commonly used to treat anxiety are escitalopram (Lexapro) and paroxetine (Paxil, Pexeva). SNRI medications used to treat anxiety include duloxetine (Cymbalta), venlafaxine (Effexor XR).
Buspirone is a drug indicated for the treatment of anxiety. This drug has high efficacy for Generalized Anxiety Disorder and is particularly effective at reducing the cognitive and interpersonal problems associated with anxiety. Unlike benzodiazepines, buspirone does not have a sedative effect or interact with alcohol. Most importantly there is a very low risk of developing a dependence on buspirone. Its side effects are minimal but can include dizziness, nervousness, and headaches. BuSpar and Vanspar are brand names associated with buspirone.
Benzodiazepines are sedatives indicated for anxiety, epilepsy, alcohol withdrawal and muscle spasms. Benzodiazepines demonstrate short-term effectiveness in the treatment of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and can help with sleep disturbances. A doctor may prescribe these drugs for a limited period of time to relieve acute symptoms of anxiety. However, long-term use of these medications is discouraged because they have a strong sedative effect and can be habit forming. In addition, taking benzodiazepines while also engaging in psychotherapy such as PE can reduce the effectiveness of the exposure therapy,. Some well-known brand names are Librium, Xanax, Valium, and Ativan.
Beta Blockers, also known as beta-adrenergic blocking agents, work by blocking the neurotransmitter epinephrine (adrenaline). Blocking adrenaline slows down and reduces the force of heart muscle contraction resulting in decreased blood pressure. Beta blockers also increase the diameter of blood vessels resulting in increased blood flow. Historically, beta blockers have been prescribed to treat the somatic symptoms of anxiety (heart rate and tremors) but they are not very effective at treating the generalized anxiety, panic attacks or phobias. Lopressor and Inderal are some of the brand names with which you might be familiar.
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
Complementary and Alternative Therapies can be used in conjunction with conventional therapies to reduce the symptoms of anxiety. There is a growing interest in these types of alternative therapies, since they are non-invasive and can be useful to patients. They are typically not intended to replace conventional therapies but rather can be an adjunct therapy that can improve the overall quality of life of patients.
A collection of activities focused in which an individual consciously produces the relaxation response in their body. This response consists of slower breathing, resulting in lower blood pressure and overall feeling of well-being. These activities include: progressive relaxation, guided imagery, biofeedback, and self-hypnosis and deep-breathing exercises.
A mind and body practice in which individuals are instructed to be mindful of thoughts, feelings and sensations in non-judgmental way. It has been shown to be useful in reducing the symptoms of psychological stress in patients with anxiety.
A mindfulness practice that combines meditation, physical postures, breathing exercises and a distinct philosophy. It has been shown to be useful in reducing some symptoms of anxiety and depression.
There are also a number of experimental treatments that have shown promise in treating the symptoms of anxiety. Here we include a brief description of a few of those, including brain stimulation (neurostimulation), acupuncture, and psychoactive drugs (marijuana and ecstasy).
Anxiety is associated with abnormal patterns of activity in the brain. One way to treat anxiety is to directly target abnormal nerve cell activity. Neuromodulation or brain stimulation therapy is a non-invasive and painless therapy that stimulates the human brain. In some recent clinical trials, patients that did not respond to more traditional forms of treatment (i.e. medication) showed a reduction in symptoms of depression and anxiety. There are two main types of neuromodulation:
Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS)
A large brief current is passed through a wire coil that is placed on the front of the head which is near the areas that regulate mood. The transient current creates a magnetic field that produces an electric current in the brain and stimulates nerve cells in the targeted region. The current typically only affects brain regions that are 5 centimeters deep into the brain which allows doctors to selectively target which brain regions to treat. Typical sessions lasts 30-60 minutes and do not require anesthesia. Sessions are administered 4-5 times a week for about 6 weeks. Although the procedure is painless, patients may experience a gentle tapping in the area of the head where the current is being administered. Neuromodulation has very few side effects but they may include headaches, slight tingling or discomfort in the area in which the coil is placed. rTMS may be administered alone or in combination with medication and/or psychotherapy.
Deep Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (dTMS)
Specialized coils that target deeper brain regions than rTMS. A patient wears a cushioned helmet (similar to the type of helmet worn during an fMRI). The coil used in dTMS was approved by the FDA in 2013 for treating depression but is currently being studied for the treatment of anxiety disorders such as OCD. The procedure is administered for 20 minutes for 4-6 weeks. Patients can resume their daily lives right after each treatment.
Acupuncture is a treatment derived from traditional Chinese medicine. It consists of inserting very thin needles into the body in targeted areas. To date there is very little evidence that acupuncture can significantly treat generalized anxiety, although there are currently ongoing research trials for PTSD. One study did find that acupuncture can reduce pre-operative anxiety.
There has been recent interest in using psychoactive substances in conjunction with psychotherapy; the two that have received increased attention have been cannabis (marijuana) and methylenedioxymethamfetamine (MDMA, known as ecstasy or molly). These drugs are somewhat controversial, given that they also have psychoactive, i.e. "feeling high" effects. However, with increasing legalization of marijuana it is important to address whether these substances could be used to alleviate clinical symptoms of anxiety. While there have been only a few randomized clinical trials for these drugs, certain forms of cannabis have demonstrated positive effects on anxiety. Specifically, cannabidiol, a component of cannabis has been effective for Social Anxiety Disoder, and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) has helped PTSD patients. However, the plant form of cannabis has not shown great efficacy and has potential to worsen symptoms, so should be used with caution and only under supervision of a provider. MDMA has shown some positive effects for PTSD, but should only be used as an adjunct to psychotherapy, again under clinical care.
Types of Care Providers
There are a number of different types of licensed mental health providers that can treat the range of anxiety and other related disorders.
Primary Care Physician
Many patients first report symptoms to their primary care physician. Primary care physicians (PCPs) will administer a thorough physical exam to rule out hormonal imbalances, side effects of medications, and certain illnesses. If the symptoms are not due to other conditions, the physician may diagnose the patient with anxiety and therefore refer the patient to a psychologist or psychiatrist. Physicians practice in hospitals, clinics and private practices.
A licensed mental health specialist with a doctorate degree (PhD) in clinical psychology who treats emotional, mental and behavioral problems. Clinical psychologists are trained to provide counseling and psychotherapy, perform psychological testing, and provide treatment for mental disorders. They generally do not prescribe medications, however, Illinois, Louisiana, and New Mexico are the only states that allow psychologists to prescribe. It is common for clinical psychologists to work in conjunction with a psychiatrist and /or a PCP who provides the medical treatment for the patients while the psychologists provides the psychotherapy. Clinical psychologists can be found at hospitals, schools, counseling centers and group or private health care practices.
A medical doctor (MD) who specializes in diagnosing and treating mental health disorders. A psychiatrist can provide psychotherapy and prescribe medications to patients. They typically work in hospitals, counseling centers and group or private health care practices.
A nurse with a master's or doctoral degree in mental health disorders. A psychiatric nurse can diagnose and treat mental health disorders. They mainly provide psychotherapy but in some states that can also prescribe medications. Psychiatric nurses also serve as patient advocates and provide case-management services. They often work in private practices, hospitals and schools.
Licensed Mental Health Counselor (LMHC) - Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) - Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) - Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)
A licensed mental health professional that has earned a Master’s degree from a variety of educational backgrounds (e.g. general counseling background, social work, marriage and family counseling). Once their formal education is completed, these clinicians are supervised in the field 1-2 years and pass a State exam to become fully licensed in the state in which they practice. These mental health professionals are licensed to diagnose emotional, mental health and behavioral health problems. They can provide mental health treatment in the form of counseling and psychotherapy, or work in other capacities as patient advocates or care managers. Licensed Master’s level clinicians work in many settings, including hospitals, community mental health clinics, private practice, school settings, nursing homes, and other social service agencies. Titles and licensing requirements may vary from state to state.
Clinical Social Worker
CSWs usually have a bachelor's degree in social work and additional training to provide mental health services. They are qualified to provide case-management and hospital discharge planning. They often work as patient advocates. Clinical social workers typically work in hospital settings, schools, clinics, social services or private practices
Where to Find Treatment
Most treatment providers for anxiety-related disorders can be found in hospitals, clinics, private or group practices. Some also operate in schools (licensed mental health counselors, clinical social workers, or psychiatric nurses ). There is also the growing field of tele-health in which mental health workers provide their services through an internet video service, streaming media, video conferencing or wireless communication. Telehealth is particularly useful for patients that live in remote rural locations that are far from institutions that provide mental health services. Mental health providers that work in tele-health can only provide services to patients currently located in the state in which the provider is licensed.
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