Can Therapy Effectively Help Reduce Anxiety Symptoms?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox
Updated February 23, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

If worrying is disrupting your life or getting in the way of your health, prosperity, or peace of mind, you might wonder what options exist for reducing anxiety and how effective they are. Therapy for anxiety is a standard treatment option for people with anxiety disorders or related mental health conditions, and there are various options to try.

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Therapy can help you manage anxiety

Types of therapy for anxiety

There are several types of therapy for anxiety disorders that may be beneficial for you. Below are a few of the most utilized methods to treat anxiety, how they work, and their effectiveness. 

Cognitive-behavioral therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is often used to treat anxiety disorders and may involve examining, evaluating, and changing negative thoughts and clinical anxiety symptoms. Using cognitive therapy and behavior therapy techniques, a licensed therapist can help you recognize how specific anxious thoughts might contribute to your anxiety or panic attacks.

Your therapist might start by teaching you to recognize cognitive distortions (negative thoughts or beliefs). This process might take some time and effort, and you may seek help in realizing the beliefs behind your fears. Your therapist can use proven techniques to guide you as you uncover unhelpful or inaccurate thoughts. 

Once you understand the negative thoughts behind your symptoms, CBT may involve evaluating helpfulness and accuracy. With this approach, your therapist can encourage you to challenge each belief so you can decide how it impacts you. Then, your therapist can help you explore new ways of thinking to replace the old beliefs that may increase anxiety symptoms. Depending on the root of your anxiety, your therapist may incorporate different CBT elements to help you make the most of your sessions. For example, panic disorder, separation anxiety disorder, and other psychiatric conditions may all benefit from specific types of anxiety therapy. If you experience emotions intensely, a therapist may use a type of CBT called dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), which typically aims to help people accept the reality of their lives while also working to make positive changes.

In countless studies, cognitive-behavioral therapy has proven effective in treating anxiety disorders. Neuroimaging studies involving brain scans show that cognitive behavior therapy can create positive changes in the brains of people with anxiety disorders. In another research review project, scientists found that CBT showed significant effectiveness in helping people with anxiety disorders reduce their anxiety sensitivity.

Exposure therapy

Exposure therapy might be recommended for anxiety disorders involving specific phobias, compulsions, or fears surrounding "what ifs” or hypothetical situations. A specific phobia might include a fear of heights, particular objects, or places. For example, social anxiety disorder (SAD) is often considered a phobia. Exposure therapy is a behavioral therapy that can help people confront these fears and reduce their sensitivity. 

In exposure therapy for anxiety disorders, you may face what you fear in a controlled environment to see that you can survive and overcome your feared outcomes. It often starts by brainstorming the situations or objects you fear and ranking them in an anxiety hierarchy. Then, you may face each trigger, starting from the least anxiety-arousing situation and moving up until you've encountered the most frightening. 

For example, for someone who has a phobia of needles, exposure therapy may start by looking at photos of a needle, moving on to holding a needle in your hand, and ending with getting a therapeutic saline IV treatment with a medical doctor. Exposure therapy is often meant to be repeated, so you can see more than once that your fears do not result in harm. 

Exposure therapy may require a willingness to continue. Your therapist can help you in each step of this process, from devising the hierarchy to facing your fears to reevaluating your thoughts about the feared objects or circumstances.

Exposure therapy can effectively treat anxiety disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and social anxiety disorder. One review of scientific literature on exposure therapy found that exposure therapy was "highly effective" in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In addition to traditional exposure therapy, virtual reality exposure therapy is effective for people with anxiety, such as those with a fear of flying

Acceptance therapy

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) aims to help people with anxiety disorders learn to accept unhelpful thoughts and feelings they can't control. ACT may be integrated with short-term psychodynamic therapy, and it typically involves developing a commitment and acting according to your chosen values.

ACT is another treatment shown to be effective for individuals with an anxiety disorder. It may benefit people with generalized anxiety disorder, as shown in a 2015 study. The participants learned to accept that panic attacks were only sensations, that negative thoughts were just thoughts, and that they could accept that these occurrences would not harm them. Another study found that a program integrating ACT and exposure therapy significantly improved social anxiety symptoms for people with social anxiety disorder.

Relaxation techniques

Another technique you may learn in therapy is how to use relaxation to reduce anxiety symptoms. Jacobson's progressive relaxation technique (JPRT), also known as progressive relaxation, is a therapy for stress and anxiety that involves tightening and relaxing each muscle group in your body in a systematic sequence.

Your counselor may also teach breathing techniques for managing your symptoms if you have an anxiety disorder. One of these techniques is deep, slow breathing, like box breathing. Other methods are more complex, such as Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY), a yoga-based breathing technique.

Several studies have indicated that learning and using relaxation techniques can help decrease the symptoms of anxiety and depression. One study examined the efficacy of JPRT and found that it helped reduce symptoms of people with test anxiety. Another study explored the SKY breathing method and found it helpful for anxiety and depression symptoms.

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How to get the most out of therapy for anxiety

As explored above, many therapeutic approaches and techniques have demonstrated effectiveness for people with anxiety disorders. However, regardless of the approach you and your therapist choose, there are several steps you can take as you go through treatment to reduce your anxiety symptoms effectively. Included below are a few tips to consider.

Prioritize therapy

Start by making therapy for your anxiety disorder a priority in your life. It may feel easy to get distracted or discouraged if you don't see progress immediately. However, attending therapy sessions can show you and your therapist that you're ready for change. 

Prepare for sessions

Before your sessions, try to prepare yourself to engage fully in therapy. Ensure you're hydrated and not hungry when it's time to begin. Try to get enough sleep the night before if you can. If you're doing online therapy, find a quiet, comfortable, and safe place for your session.

Show your authentic self

Putting up a brave front or leaving details out when talking to your therapist might be tempting. Many people might feel embarrassed about their anxious feelings or the difficulty they have in coping with their symptoms of anxiety disorders. However, being authentic and honest can help your therapist understand your concerns and offer effective coping strategies. 

Stay open to new ideas

Many people have a preconceived notion of what therapy might be like. However, your therapist may use techniques and methods that are unfamiliar to you. Try to be willing to consider the treatments your counselor suggests with an open mind. You may learn something that helps you. 

Learn about your anxiety disorder

Your therapist might take some time in your sessions to teach you about anxiety disorders. Learning about anxiety disorder symptoms can help you identify issues you might not have noticed. Anxiety related to certain events or areas of your life, such as social anxiety, may benefit from complementary therapies. Learning about how treatments work and have helped others may also give you hope and encouragement to stick with your treatment. 

Be fully engaged

Being fully engaged with your therapy can mean paying attention to what's happening during sessions, listening carefully, and responding to suggestions. It can also mean trying to understand and put what you've learned into practice. If your therapist assigns homework or offers resources, consider checking them out.  

Do the homework

Your therapist might ask you to do homework between sessions. Your assignments could involve writing about your symptoms or practicing a new skill. If your therapist prepares you for exposure therapy, they might ask you to think about and write down situations that bring up anxious feelings. Your homework might include changing behavior and reporting the results. Try to do each homework assignment before the next session so that you can move on to the next phase of your treatment more confidently.

Bring up questions and concerns

You might have questions about what's happening in therapy or feel concerned if it isn't going as you had hoped. Trust your counselor with these questions and concerns. They may offer answers so that you feel better about the process and have the understanding you crave to get relief from your symptoms.

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Therapy can help you manage anxiety

Counseling options 

Talking to a therapist who understands and treats anxiety disorders can be a helpful step in finding relief from your symptoms. However, at times, the prospect of finding a therapist, traveling to a new location, interacting with new people, and waiting in a busy office can feel intimidating to people with anxiety. In these cases, online therapy may be a practical choice. With online therapy, you can match with a licensed therapist from wherever you have an internet connection, including the comfort of your own home. 

Significant research shows that online counseling can be as effective as traditional therapy for anxiety. For example, one study explored the effectiveness of internet-delivered cognitive behavior therapy (ICBT) compared to face-to-face cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). ICBT and face-to-face CBT were equally effective in treating five different anxiety disorders. If you're interested in getting started, consider signing up with BetterHelp. 

Takeaway

Living with anxiety can be challenging, but several types of therapy have been effective in treating anxiety, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, and acceptance and commitment therapy. 

If you are experiencing an anxiety disorder or another mental health condition, such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you may benefit from speaking with a licensed therapist. If you feel more comfortable speaking with a therapist from your home, you might consider online therapy. With BetterHelp, you can fill out a short online form that can help you be matched with a therapist who has experience treating anxiety and teaching people ways to cope with anxiety-inducing situations. Take the first step toward relief from anxiety and reach out to BetterHelp today.

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