How Effective Is Psychotherapy For Anxiety?

By: Nadia Khan

Updated February 13, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Horn

Content/Trigger Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include sexual assault & violence which could potentially be triggering.

What Is Anxiety?

Experiencing bouts of anxiety here and there is a very normal emotion to experience and is rarely cause for stress or concern. In fact, humans are biologically wired to experience anxiety and 'fight or flight' when faced with a dangerous situation. This has become essential to our survival. Feelings of anxiety can reach a level where there is too much anxiety, and it is no longer healthy. If an individual lives in a constant state of fear, stress, and apprehension, it can affect the body emotionally, mentally and in severe cases physically. They can have symptoms such as high blood pressure or panic attacks. This can have a debilitating effect on their life and hinder them from doing and enjoying normal, everyday activities.

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When anxiety reaches this type of level; chances are high the individual has developed a type of Anxiety Disorder. Several different mental disorders fall within the category of "Anxiety Disorder," and approximately forty million people in the United States alone suffer from one or more of these disorders.

While dozens of disorders can be categorized as an Anxiety Disorder, the US Department of Health & Human Services lists out the five most common and most major type of anxiety disorder as:

  1. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): when an individual experiences stress, fear, and anxiety on a daily and on-going basis for no apparent reason. These worries and anxieties may be difficult to control, be found on nothing concrete and may begin to negatively impact the individual's ability to lead a normal life. It is not uncommon to develop GAD as a by-product or in conjunction with other mood disorders or anxiety disorders.
  1. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): is defined by the Mayo Clinic as "a pattern of unreasonable thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead you to do repetitive behaviors (compulsions)." Over time not giving into the behavior begins to cause the individual stress and distress and can seriously hamper their ability to lead a normal life. A good example of OCD is someone terrified of germs or of catching an illness, and thus they have a compulsive need to constantly wash their hands or bathe themselves or change their clothes. This fear may prevent them from leaving the house or from interacting with others. As with most anxiety disorders, the exact cause of OCD is not known.
  1. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD): a mental condition that can develop over time if the individual has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event or events. For example, a veteran who witnessed violence and death on the battlefield, or a woman who was raped. It can take time for PTSD to develop and may catch the individual by surprise. PTSD symptoms can occur as a result of a trigger (a loud bang in the case of the Veteran) and can include experiencing intense and painful flashbacks, anxiety, nightmares and an inability to function properly. Thankfully, PTSD can be treated very successfully.
  1. Panic Disorder: when an individual suffers from repeated, inexplicable and unexpected panic attacks where they experience a period of crippling fear. Physical symptoms include heart palpitations, difficulty breathing, sweating, etc. Panic attacks have been likened to and mistaken for a heart attack. There is no exact cause for why someone may develop a panic disorder, but research suggests genetics, psychological trauma or abuse may play a role in its development.
  1. Social Anxiety Disorder: also known as Social Phobia, a Social Anxiety Disorder is when the idea of any kind of social interaction leads to fear, severe anxiety and stress to the point where the individual avoids social situations at all cost. This can include avoiding school, going on dates, work, family or social gatherings or just even being out and about on a regular errand at the mall or the grocery store. This is a chronic mental condition, which can severely reduce the quality of your life and lead to other issues such as depression.

Thankfully, as serious and crippling as some of these conditions can become, most types of anxiety can easily be treated with a high degree of success using medication, therapy or a combination of both. Studies have shown that while medication can be a helpful solution for the immediate present, psychotherapy is a far better treatment path to follow and will be more effective in the long term. Most therapists and mental health professionals will recommend therapy as the first course of action in treating anxiety, saving the use of medications as a last resort if all else fails.

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Do You Suffer From Anxiety?

If experiencing some form of anxiety is normal, how can you know if you are suffering from an anxiety disorder? Some recurring physical and emotional signs and symptoms to watch out for include the following:

  • Difficulty sleeping;
  • Fatigue;
  • Breaking out in cold sweat or experiencing other physical discomfort at the idea of having to do something or go somewhere;
  • Bouts of dizziness or nausea;
  • Feeling panicked, stressed or fearful for no real reason;
  • High blood pressure or heart palpitations;
  • Never being able to relax or be calm;
  • Unable to decide because you're always worried you'll make the wrong one;
  • Having difficulty concentrating or focusing on any one thing;
  • Lack of interest in things that brought joy before;
  • Thoughts of suicide or self-harm.

If any of these symptoms sound or feel familiar to you, it may be worthwhile to take a closer look at what's happening in your life and examine your emotions on a deeper level. As we go through our day to day life, it is normal to experience some of these emotions sporadically. If you find yourself having more bad days than good or find that most of what you experience daily is aligned with these symptoms, it's time to speak to your doctor. Some people also choose to use online screening tools as a way to kick-start the process. Keep in mind online tools and quizzes should not be used for a medical diagnosis.

Depending on where you live, the first point of contact to get help may be your family doctor. Be honest and truthful about your symptoms. Remember there is no shame in what you are experiencing, and the sooner you get help, the sooner you can start treatment. Your doctor will listen to you, and run some tests before referring you to the appropriate mental health professional. Once a proper diagnosis has been rendered, your therapist will work with you on a treatment plan and course of action, which will more than likely begin with psychotherapy sessions.

Types Of Psychotherapy Used To Treat Anxiety:

The most common and leading types of therapy used to treat anxiety are, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Exposure Therapy:

CBT:

CBT is the preferred type of therapy since it tends to yield faster and more effective results and requires less time than other types of therapy. It follows a specific structure with a clear format and a fewer amount of sessions. The mental health therapist will meet with the patient and based on the situation will create an appropriate treatment plan - How often should you meet? How long should the sessions last? What do you want to achieve? - focusing on a specific problem with a set goal to achieve.

What CBT aims to do is change the way the patient approaches and looks at things so that instead of having negative thoughts or viewing something through a specific lens, the patient can look at and analyze a situation from all angles and therefore handle it more effectively.

There are four steps to achieving this positive outcome with CBT:

  1. Identifying and discussing the issue you are going through.
  2. becoming aware of your interpretation/emotions and feelings about the situation.
  3. identifying and recognizing the thoughts and patterns, which are negatively impacting your problem and worsening your situation.
  4. learning how to reshape these thoughts and perceptions so you can view the situation in a more balanced way. This is often the most difficult stage since it requires the individual to analyze their innermost self and change certain ways of doing things.

For someone dealing with anxiety, CBT will help them understand their negative, fear-inducing thoughts in a new way and provide them with the necessary tools. Over time, when they find themselves in an anxiety-inducing situation, they can take a step back and manage the situation in a positive manner.

While CBT is generally used to treat a mental illness or disorder, anyone going through any kind of stressful situation in their life can benefit enormously from CBT. It provides you with tools on how to better cope with stressful life events or anxiety.

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Exposure Therapy:

This style of therapy does what the name suggests; it exposes the patient to the things they fear and feel anxiety towards. Generally, when individuals are fearful of something, they do their best to avoid it and stay far away from it.

With exposure therapy, you are facing your fears. This is in the hopes that through repeated exposure, you will no longer have the same fears or anxieties. You will be able to take control over those fears so that they no longer rule your life. This will help diminish your anxiety and stress. For example, if you have severe anxiety when you have to drive, as part of exposure therapy your therapist may ask you to look at pictures of cars. Next you may be asked to go outside and look at a car in person. Weeks down the road, you might be asked to sit in a car in the parking lot. Each step builds upon a prior success. The culmination of this therapeutic intervention might be to go for a drive with the therapist in the car.

While CBT and Exposure Therapy are two of the most popular types of psychotherapy used to treat anxiety, the therapist may suggest other types of therapies and activities such as exercise, yoga, mindfulness activities, etc. as a way to complement and bolster the effects of the main treatment plan.

Conclusion:

Suffering from anxiety or an anxiety disorder does not have to be crippling or scary or become a handicap. Nor does it have to bring your life to a standstill. With timely action and the right type of intervention and help, it is possible to get your life back on track, and the best way to do so is to start with psychotherapy.

It cannot be stressed enough that for psychotherapy to be effective, both the patient and therapist need to put in a fair amount of work and be committed to succeed. It is important to always be open and honest with your therapist about your successes as well as failures and to follow through with the treatment plan to the best of your abilities. It's okay to fail, and it's okay to feel discouraged, but as long as you keep going, you will eventually see results.

The first and most difficult step is recognizing there is an issue, understanding that this is a battle you cannot fight or beat on your own and finding the courage to seek out the appropriate help. If your anxiety is hindering you from enjoying your life to its fullest or affecting your relationships with family, friends and loved ones, consider speaking to a doctor or mental health professional. If you're not quite ready to speak to someone in person yet, plenty of resources are available on the Internet, including online therapy.

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So consider seeing a psychotherapist who can delve into the heart of the matter and provide you with the necessary skills and tools so you can master your emotions; conquer your fears and lead a happy, normal, healthy, successful life.


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