Overcoming Extreme Anxiety: Treatment Options And Tips
If you live with extreme anxiety, you likely know that excessive fears and worries can be life-altering, but there can be many ways to overcome anxiety symptoms, such as going to therapy to reduce anxiety. While some people who experience anxious thoughts may feel isolated and alone, anxiety disorders are generally the most common mental illness in the United States, potentially affecting more than 19 percent of adults each year. There may be many effective treatments for anxiety, and research shows that cognitive behavioral therapy is typically one of the most effective. Lifestyle changes and habits that may be helpful can include regular exercise, quality sleep, a healthy diet, mindfulness, and maintaining healthy relationships. It’s generally recommended to seek the help of a licensed mental health professional in person or online if your anxiety symptoms negatively impact your everyday life.
Types of anxiety disorders
Although some symptoms might overlap, there are generally five distinct types of anxiety disorders.
Generalized anxiety disorder
People with generalized anxiety disorder may feel worried or nervous even when there is no reason to be. These feelings of anxiety or dread can interfere with daily life and persist for months or years.
Typically better known as OCD, the onset of this anxiety disorder is often gradual and can become all-encompassing. These individuals may experience irrational thoughts and fears, and many partake in rituals like frequent hand washing, organizing, or counting to ward off obsessive thought patterns. However, these rituals usually don't lead to long-term relief and may instead reinforce obsessions.
People experiencing this type of anxiety disorder may have sudden bouts of intense fear, as well as physical symptoms, potentially including chest pain, dizziness, and shortness of breath. These bouts of fear are often called panic attacks. Treatment usually focuses on identifying what triggers the panic attacks and managing anxiety as it occurs.
Post-traumatic stress disorder
More commonly known as PTSD, this often-crippling disorder usually results from witnessing or experiencing a frightening event. It can stem from trauma in childhood or adulthood, and causes may include physical violence, mental or emotional abuse*, natural disasters, accidents, terrorist attacks, or combat.
*If you or someone you know is witnessing or experiencing any form of abuse, please know that help is available. You can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline anytime at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).
Social anxiety disorder
Also referred to as social phobia, symptoms of this disorder often include fear and excessive worry related to social situations. Some individuals only experience symptoms in certain conditions (e.g., eating or drinking in the presence of other people), while others may have difficulty in all social situations.
In addition to the five major types of anxiety disorders, approximately 19 million adults in the U.S. live with phobias. Often, these phobias begin in childhood, with the average age of onset being seven years old. Common phobias can include:
- Mysophobia - fear of germs
- Aerophobia - fear of flying
- Claustrophobia - fear of small spaces or rooms
- Agoraphobia - fear of open or crowded spaces
- Arachnophobia - fear of spiders
Coexisting physical or mental health conditions can exacerbate anxiety disorder symptoms. These conditions can complicate treatment. Depression can be common among those experiencing anxiety, as can bipolar disorder, eating disorders, sleep disorders, chronic pain, and substance use disorders.
It can be essential to be upfront and honest about your medical history and symptoms so that any underlying or co-occurring conditions can also be addressed and treated. Remember that treatment may take longer if you're experiencing severe anxiety or multiple mental health conditions.
Tips for coping with extreme anxiety
"I feel like my anxiety is ruining my life. Is there something I can do?" Managing anxiety may not be as difficult as you may believe, and there may be many things you can do to calm yourself down when you start to feel anxious. While none of these tips may cure your anxiety, they may help you ward off symptoms and improve your overall well-being. Learning how to cope with anxiety can involve a variety of approaches, potentially including mindfulness techniques, exercise, therapy, and medication. Never start or stop any form of medication without the guidance of a licensed medical professional.
Exercise. Movement can reduce stress and anxiety while improving mood and overall mental and physical fitness. Whether it's a 10-minute walk or a 45-minute sweat session, exercise can provide hours of relief from anxiety and depression symptoms. Try scheduling movement into your daily routine. Remember that if you enjoy an activity, you're more likely to stick with it.
- Prioritize sleep. The ADAA reports that sleep deprivation may lead to anxiety disorders. Lack of sleep and increased anxiety can become a vicious cycle, as stress and anxiety can cause insomnia and other sleep issues. You can improve your sleep hygiene by avoiding stimulants before bed, incorporating physical activity into your daily routine, and establishing a relaxing nighttime ritual.
- Practice mindfulness. Studies show that mindfulness meditation can relieve stress and anxiety symptoms. Mindfulness meditation may include calming breathing techniques and guided imagery. It may not matter whether you are on the beach or in the middle of a metropolis; you can meditate anywhere. According to Harvard Medical School, a great deal of emerging evidence supports mindfulness.
- Avoid alcohol and drugs. Mind-altering substances can cause or worsen anxiety symptoms. It's usually best for individuals with anxiety to avoid alcohol and recreational drugs.
- Limit your caffeine intake. If you love your morning cup of joe, you may want to switch to decaf. Caffeine is typically viewed as a stimulant that can exacerbate anxiety.
- Quit smoking. Your anxiety may lessen considerably if you quit smoking altogether or reduce nicotine consumption as much as possible.
- Eat a balanced diet. Eating a well-balanced diet is another lifestyle change that may help you in your journey of how to overcome anxiety or manage symptoms. Eating nutritious foods that are rich in vitamins and nutrients, for example, may be beneficial. Eating well-balanced meals, drinking plenty of water, and avoiding simple carbohydrates may help stabilize your mood and emotions. Looking out for any upticks in anxiety after eating can also provide valuable insights into which foods could be contributing to your symptoms.
- Disrupt your routine. When you feel anxious, you might go for a walk or take a few minutes to practice breathing techniques. Anxiety can feel paralyzing, so it can be important to shift gears as soon as you notice symptoms.
- Stay social. It can be easy to isolate yourself when anxiety sets in, but maintaining healthy relationships can combat stress and release stress-reducing hormones.
While everyone may experience occasional anxiety, if you're living with debilitating symptoms that you can't manage on your own, you may need professional help to overcome them. Therapists often use cognitive-behavioral therapy to help you identify anxiety-invoking triggers and unhelpful thought patterns. This type of treatment generally teaches you to adopt new helpful coping strategies while recognizing and changing unhelpful behavioral patterns.
Your therapist may tailor your treatment to meet your individual needs. While the principles used in CBT can treat individuals with severe anxiety disorders, you and your therapist will likely collaborate to form a personalized treatment plan. In some cases, your therapist may combine therapies, potentially implementing CBT with other therapy techniques, such as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), biofeedback, or dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).
Get the help you need
If you’re ready to start anxiety therapy, you can attend in-person treatment or meet with a therapist online. Online therapy can be ideal for those with extreme anxiety symptoms because it can often be intimidating to call around for an appointment and travel to a new location before meeting a new therapist face-to-face. Online therapy can empower you to get the help you deserve from the comfort of your own living room or any other location with an internet connection.
Research shows that online therapy for anxiety can be highly effective. One review of 14 studies found that online treatment generally leads to a 50% improvement in symptoms of multiple conditions, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and depression.
Is it possible to overcome severe anxiety?
Overcoming severe anxiety is likely possible, but it may be easier with the help of a therapist or other mental health provider. Anxiety, especially when severe, can sometimes feel overwhelming and debilitating. A therapist can help reduce the burden of anxiety management by investigating underlying causes, helping to change negative thoughts, teaching effective coping skills, and helping to identify triggers of anxious feelings.
Evidence suggests that the majority of people who seek treatment for an anxiety disorder report a significant improvement in their quality of life. Treatment can help reduce subjective distress, improve behavioral responses to anxiety, and restore functional ability. Those experiencing severe anxiety will likely benefit from a consultation with a mental health professional.
Why am I having severe anxiety?
Excessive anxiety can sometimes be difficult to trace. Ideally, you already know what you are worrying about, but some symptoms of anxiety may make it difficult to process and understand your feelings. If you’re experiencing anxiety with no known cause, it may be worthwhile to reach out to a medical or mental health professional for assessment. An evaluation may reveal underlying causes promoting your anxiety.
Is severe anxiety lifelong?
People with anxiety often wonder how long the symptoms will persist. While the course will vary for everyone, evidence suggests significant gains are typically made within 12 to 16 weeks of starting treatment. However, it is more challenging to speculate about severe anxiety that is not being professionally treated. Anxiety can resolve spontaneously, often when an anxiety trigger is removed, but some anxiety disorders become chronic, often lasting years or more. Because anxiety is considered highly treatable, it is likely best to consult with a professional about severe anxiety that has persisted over time.
How can I heal my anxiety without drugs?
One of the most effective ways to heal from anxiety is to work with a qualified mental health professional. While it is possible for anxiety to resolve on its own, and it may be possible to learn coping skills or other strategies independently, working with a professional can help avoid pitfalls or challenges in the process.
A therapist will likely assess the underlying causes of your anxiety while recommending coping strategies and interventions to alleviate distress. While working with a professional may be the best option to ensure a positive outcome, many coping strategies can be used without a therapist’s supervision. Some of the more effective are summarized below:
- Breathing exercises and relaxation techniques are some of the most effective interventions for rising anxiety that work in the present moment. When you feel the physical sensations of anxiety or a panic attack begin to emerge, relaxation strategies can signal your body to start the process of calming down, potentially stopping anxiety or panic in its tracks.
- Maintaining good self-care is essential for reducing anxiety. According to the National Institute for Mental Health, basic self-care includes getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, and getting enough physical activity. Exercise is especially important, as it is known to be a potent direct intervention for anxiety. Sleep is also essential to stay healthy, and a good diet can prevent swings in blood sugar that might contribute to anxiety symptoms.
- Lean on others for help managing your anxiety. If you’re concerned you’re social support group won’t be up to the task, consider looking for local or online anxiety support groups. An anxiety support group typically consists of others who are overcoming anxiety, and they may be able to offer resources, guidance, and encouragement.
What's the longest anxiety can last?
At its longest, anxiety can potentially become a lifelong condition, but most people probably experience waxing and waning of their symptoms over time. It is unlikely that a person remains at “maximum anxiety” for more than a few minutes or hours, but anxiety of some type may be able to persist for days, weeks, months, or years. However, evidence suggests that the worst outcomes are likely reserved for untreated anxiety. Of those who seek treatment for an anxiety disorder, most see significant improvement in their quality of life in 12 to 16 weeks.
Is anxiety 100% curable?
Anxiety disorders can sometimes become chronic conditions that require life-long management, while other people experience relatively quick remission. It is probably better to say that anxiety is “100% manageable” rather than “100% curable.” Anxiety may spontaneously resolve, often due to the removal of an anxiety trigger, only to return when circumstances change.
Similarly, a person may learn coping strategies that are effective for some triggers but ineffective for others. It is not possible to say whether anxiety will be completely absent or under control following treatment, but evidence suggests that most people who seek treatment will see a significant improvement. They may need to return to treatment in the future as their life circumstances change and they grow as a person, but that is not guaranteed.
How do I know if my anxiety is severe?
Whether or not your anxiety is severe is relative to you, your experiences, and your perceptions. If your anxiety is noticeable and unpleasant, it is severe enough to warrant treatment. You don’t need to wait for it to suddenly or gradually increase to a certain threshold before seeking help. Often, in clinical settings, professionals look at the impact anxiety has on a person’s daily life and functional ability to quantify its severity. However, that is typically used to measure progress and identify the most severely impacted areas. For instance, if your anxiety is making it difficult to attend work or school, it would probably be rated as severe.
What is the most serious form of anxiety?
While most forms of anxiety can be severe, based on the scope of its impact, it is possible that generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is the most serious form of anxiety. GAD is characterized by worrying excessively about everyday things, struggling to control the worry, finding it challenging to relax, sleep disturbances, sensitivity, and irritability. GAD might be the most serious form of anxiety because it has the potential to affect every aspect of a person’s life. The worry is generalized, meaning it applies to regular daily stressors that are a normal part of life, in addition to specific triggers.
Another serious form of anxiety might be panic disorder. Panic disorder is characterized by sudden anxiety attacks that are overwhelming and last several minutes. The attacks can occur at unpredictable times with no apparent trigger, making it difficult to anticipate a proactive response. Panic disorder may be the most serious because of its unpredictability and the severity of anxiety attacks. An attack can make it impossible for a person to function until it passes and may result in panic and other emotions that could be disturbing to witness.
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