Is There A Cure For Anxiety?
Updated August 27, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC
Millions of people worldwide occasionally experience nervousness over a looming test, a stressful situation at work, or an upcoming move to a new city. Feeling this way is very normal, and it is a natural response to outside stressors. However, for some individuals, these feelings of nervousness and apprehension begin to take over their lives. Whereas a certain amount of anxiety allows people to remain alert and responsive to an unfamiliar situation, too much anxiety can lead to extreme distress and a lower quality of life. Luckily, those suffering from anxiety disorders have many options for a cure, as it is highly treatable with lifestyle changes, therapy, or medication (or a combination thereof).
What is Anxiety?
As previously described, anxiety is the feeling of distress or apprehension over an upcoming event. However, those with an anxiety disorder feel a disproportionate amount of stress and fear that can lead to mental and physical symptoms. Anxiety disorders can alter how an individual will process and respond to emotions or events in their life. Mild anxiety disorders can lead to a persistent, vague feeling of stress, while those with severe anxiety disorders can be dissuaded from engaging in everyday activities. Anxiety-related disorders can be divided into three categories: anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and trauma/stressor-related disorders.
An anxiety disorder is characterized by a general feeling of excessive nervousness or fear of a perceived or real threat. “Perceived” threats are threats that are not real but feel real to the individual struggling with the disorder. For example, a perceived threat could be the fear that the oven has been left on (even if it has not been used), and thus a fire will start. This threat may be a current one or a future one. It can lead to negative behavioral, emotional, or physical responses. Physical symptoms of anxiety disorders include body aches, chest pains, adrenaline rushes, chills, an inability to breathe, dizziness, headaches, heart palpitations, hot flashes, nausea, or hyperventilation.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, is characterized by obsessive or intrusive thoughts about a situation. The “obsessive” characterization involves a fixation on a specific situation or item that triggers the “compulsion”, or repeated behaviors by an individual to address that obsession. These behaviors are done in order to alleviate the anxiety associated with the obsession. This obsession triggers perceived threats: for example, an individual may believe if they do not wash their hands exactly 9 times in a row, they will become seriously ill. By giving in to the compulsion, they alleviate anxiety about that perceived threat while also exacerbating their condition.
Trauma/Stressor Related Disorders
Trauma or stressor-related disorders are anxiety disorders that stem from the experience of a traumatic situation. This traumatic situation can be a variety of events: war, sexual assault, the death of a loved one, or a car accident may be some events that can trigger trauma-related anxiety disorders. PTSD is the most well-known trauma-related anxiety disorder. Those struggling with PTSD can have intense flashbacks or anxiety attacks when reminded of their experience or may develop an extreme aversion to possibly experiencing that event again. For example, if an individual is in a car crash, they may avoid cars or public transportation altogether.
Treatment of Anxiety
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorder in the United States, affecting 18.1% of the population every year. However, they are also one of the most treatable. The main roadblock to those suffering from anxiety is the primary care system: only 36.9% of those suffering ask for and receive treatment. Lifestyle changes, psychological therapy, and medication can help all individuals suffering from anxiety disorders to overcome their symptoms and realign their life.
Lifestyle changes are often a low-cost private option for an individual to address their anxiety disorder. Lifestyle changes may include an increase in exercise, a change in diet, or a focus on meditation or mindfulness to calm nerves and relieve stress. While changing their lifestyle may work for those with mild anxiety disorders and will certainly lead to an overall healthier way of living, it may not address the more intense symptoms of those living with severe anxiety disorders.
Exercise is heavily promoted by health professionals worldwide as it offers dozens of benefits besides staying fit. Adding regular physical exercise (doctors recommend 150 minutes of moderate exercise per day) can reduce anxiety symptoms. Exercise releases endorphins (the feel-good chemical) to raise moods, which can reduce tension and stress in the body. It also is proven to improve sleep patterns, which is another way to lower anxiety: a regulated 7-8 hours of sleep per night can improve mood and provide a period for the brain and body to relax. Many of those struggling with anxiety may also struggle with insomnia (the inability to fall or stay asleep), so looking into sleep aids may help this as well.
While there is no specific food or drink that will stop anxiety, adopting a healthy diet is shown to regulate energy and moods overall. Staying hydrated and avoiding caffeine and alcohol as much as possible can prevent energy crashes or unwelcome side effects. Caffeine, in particular, can exacerbate anxiety symptoms such as uncontrollable shaking or headaches. A balanced diet consisting of healthy amounts of carbohydrates, proteins, and healthy fats that also stays away from fried or processed foods can regulate energy levels throughout the day. In fact, studies show that adopting an anti-inflammatory diet, avoiding processed foods, and ensuring adequate amounts of folic acid and fatty acids can lead to a reduction in both depression and anxiety. Certain vitamins, such as Vitamin C, can balance a body’s stress hormones. A well-balanced, regulated three meals a day can level out blood sugar levels and keep the body and the mind at ease.
Meditation and Mindfulness
A focus on meditation and mindfulness may also reduce stress and promote healthy thinking habits. Mindfulness is the act of noticing and accepting all thought patterns, which allows an individual to better understand how they react to certain experiences or events. For those with anxiety, especially OCD or PTSD, recognizing a personal reaction to a trigger may allow them to think through the trigger logically and feel calmer as a result. Meditation, often central to practices such as yoga, attempts to focus the individual and clear the mind of all thoughts. Instituting daily practices of meditation or mindfulness can lead to lower stress levels and a greater ability to focus on the processing of thoughts or events. These can aid individuals to better understand their own feelings of anxiety and stress, as well as what practices they feel best aids them in their journey to a cure.
Psychological therapy is often recommended to treat anxiety due to the high success rate. Therapy is often much more successful than lifestyle changes, although the two may be used in tandem to deliver the best results. Anxiety therapy can even deliver better results than anxiety medication, as it teaches the individual how to deal with the underlying causes or triggers of their anxiety disorder, rather than just treating the symptoms of those triggers. Many different types of therapy are used for those suffering from anxiety, but cognitive-behavioral therapy and exposure therapy are the two main types.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is the most prevalent therapy used to treat anxiety disorders. It is effective in treating general anxiety disorders, OCD, and panic disorders. CBT addresses an individual’s negative thought patterns as well as the subsequent reactions or behaviors associated with those thoughts. CBT attempts to teach the individual that thoughts (rather than events) influence the way they emotionally react. In CBT, negative thoughts are identified, challenged, and replaced with realistic thoughts. For those with anxiety disorders, CBT can teach how to break negative patterns of thinking, which therefore reduces anxiety about those thoughts.
Those with anxiety disorders often end up avoiding everything that they believe will trigger their symptoms. Over time, this forms habits that may prevent individuals from interacting in everyday life and may make these fears or aversions even stronger. Exposure therapy aims to remedy that. Exposure therapy attempts to expose individuals to the thing that they fear in order to address it and shows the individual that it is not something that needs to be feared. For example, those who are scared of car crashes due to their own traumatic experience may avoid vehicles altogether. Exposing that individual to rides in vehicles can reduce fear and anxiety by proving that a car ride is not inherently dangerous. Over time, the individual will feel in control over that situation, and anxiety is reduced.
Those who have severe anxiety disorders, such as OCD or PTSD, may not find immediate success with either lifestyle changes or therapy. Their symptoms may be so severe that they need fast-acting remedies to allow them to participate in regular activities or reduce severe depression due to their disorder. Antidepressants are commonly used to treat anxiety, as well as anxiolytics (which attempt to treat specific symptoms of anxiety) or muscle relaxants. Many individuals who experience anxiety find the most success with a combination of psychotherapy and medication. After experiencing a remission in symptoms, the medication should be continued for at least 6 months to ensure that there is no relapse.
Overall, while anxiety is often underreported and therefore undertreated, it is an incredibly curable disorder. Different types of anxiety require different treatments, but many find success with either lifestyle changes, psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of all three. Anxiety is highly specific to the individual, so there is no one clear path that can aid everyone struggling with anxiety, but focusing on treatments that help and sticking with them can ensure continued mental health and success at overcoming these types of disorders.