How Effective Is Psychotherapy For Anxiety?

Updated February 3, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Content Warning: Please be advised that this article mentions suicidal thoughts, which could potentially be triggering. Read with discretion. 

Fear can be a common human emotion. Humans are biologically wired to experience fear and the fight-or-flight response when faced with a dangerous situation. However, if fear starts to get in the way of your daily functioning, it may indicate an underlying issue, such as an anxiety disorder. 

Living in constant fear, stress, and apprehension can affect the body emotionally, mentally, and physically, with symptoms such as high blood pressure or panic attacks. For someone with an anxiety disorder, these symptoms can have a debilitating effect on life and hinder them from enjoying everyday activities. If you experience these symptoms, know you’re not alone.

Several mental disorders fall within the category of anxiety disorders in the DSM-5, and approximately 40 million adults in the United States live with an anxiety disorder.

Is Anxiety Stopping You From Being Who You Want To Be?

What Is Anxiety?

The US Department of Health & Human Services lists the five most common types of anxiety disorders, including the following. 

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

GAD is often characterized by extreme stress, fear, and anxiety on a daily and ongoing basis, with or without reason. General anxiety and worrying may be challenging to control and negatively impact an individual's ability to function in daily life. Symptoms of GAD might include: 

  • Feeling on edge 

  • Feeling that your thoughts are racing and that they can't stop 

  • Physical symptoms like a speedy heart rate or sweaty palms

  • Emotional distress 

  • Worrying thoughts 

  • Difficulty concentrating 

  • A feeling of impending doom or dread

  • Hypervigilance 

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

The Mayo Clinic defines OCD as "a pattern of unreasonable thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead you to repetitive behaviors (compulsions)." Over time, not giving in to a compulsion may cause distress and hamper a person's ability to function in daily life. Compulsions can include counting rituals, cleaning, avoiding people or places, looking for patterns, or repeating words or phrases, among others. OCD may be caused by a combination of factors, including genetics and environment. 

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

PTSD can develop if an individual has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. Per the release of the fifth edition of the DSM (diagnostic manual), PTSD is no longer considered an anxiety disorder. Instead, it is categorized as a stress-related condition. However, PTSD can involve symptoms similar to anxiety, such as hypervigilance, avoidance, and fear. 

It can take time for PTSD to develop, and what is traumatic for one person may not be for another. PTSD symptoms differ from other mental health conditions in that they are related to singular or multiple traumatic events. Those with this condition may experience intense flashbacks, anxiety, nightmares, and trouble functioning. 

Panic Disorder

When an individual suffers from repeated, inexplicable, and unexpected panic attacks, they may experience physical symptoms that are distressing or terrifying. Physical symptoms related to panic disorder can include heart palpitations, difficulty breathing, sweating, and shaking, among others. Panic attacks may be mistaken for heart attacks, and people experiencing them may believe they are dying. Genetics, psychological trauma, or environmental factors may play a role in the development of this condition. 

Social Anxiety Disorder

Also known as social phobia, social anxiety disorder may occur when social interaction leads to fear, severe anxiety, or stress to the point that an individual avoids social situations. Those with this condition may avoid school, going on dates, attending work, showing up to family or social gatherings, or being out and about on an errand at the mall or grocery store. This chronic mental condition can severely reduce quality of life and lead to other issues, such as depression.

However, anxiety disorders are highly treatable with medication, therapy, or a combination. Research shows that while medication can be helpful, psychotherapy is more effective in the long term.

Symptoms Of Anxiety 

It can be challenging to know if you are experiencing symptoms of an anxiety disorder. Some recurring physical and emotional signs and symptoms to watch out for can include the following:

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Fatigue

  • Breaking out in cold sweat or experiencing other physical discomforts 

  • Bouts of dizziness or nausea

  • Feeling panicked, stressed, or fearful 

  • High blood pressure or heart palpitations

  • Feeling unable to relax

  • Feeling unable to make decisions out of fear of being wrong 

  • Having difficulty concentrating or focusing on tasks 

  • Lack of interest in activities that previously brought joy 

  • Thoughts of suicide or self-harm* 

*If you are experiencing thoughts or urges of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text 988 to talk to someone over SMS. They are available 24/7 to offer support. 

If any of these symptoms sound or feel familiar to you, you might be showing signs of a mental health condition. Although you might experience these symptoms independently, if they continue more often than not or occur on most days within two weeks, consider reaching out to a mental health professional.

If you're not sure where to find a therapist, consider talking to your primary care physician for a referral. Be honest and truthful about your symptoms. The sooner you reach out for support, the sooner you may start treatment. Your doctor can listen to you and run tests before referring you to the appropriate mental health professional. Even if you do not receive a diagnosis or referral, a therapist may work with you on a treatment plan and provide psychotherapy. 

Types Of Psychotherapy Used To Treat Anxiety

The most common types of therapy used to treat anxiety are cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy, outlined below. 

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is one of the most effective therapies for anxiety, as it may yield faster and more effective results and requires less time than other types of treatment. CBT often follows a specific structure with a clear format. A therapist may meet with a client and, based on the situation, create an appropriate treatment plan determining how often they should meet, how long the sessions should last, and what they want to achieve, focusing on a specific problem with a set goal to achieve.

CBT often aims to change how a patient approaches thoughts and behaviors. It replaces cognitive distortions and negative beliefs with healthy, optimistic thoughts and research-backed coping mechanisms. 

There can be four steps to achieving this positive outcome with CBT, including the following: 

  1. Identifying and discussing your concerns 

  2. Becoming aware of your interpretation and feelings about your concerns 

  3. Identifying and recognizing the thoughts and patterns negatively impacting your problem and potentially worsening your situation

  4. Learning how to reshape these thoughts and perceptions so you can view the situation optimistically

For someone dealing with anxiety, CBT can provide an understanding of negative, fear-inducing thoughts in a unique way that provides healthy tools and techniques. Over time, individuals may feel able to positively manage each situation where they previously struggled. 

While CBT is generally used to treat mental health conditions, anyone experiencing a stressful situation or concern may benefit from this method. It can provide you with tools to cope with stressful events or anxiety, which may occur for many. 

Is Anxiety Stopping You From Being Who You Want To Be?

Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy exposes patients to feared stimuli to reduce fear responses over time. Generally, when individuals fear something, they do their best to avoid it and stay far away.

With exposure therapy, you may work with your therapist to outline your specific fears or urges related to them. You can then create a plan to expose yourself to these fears without causing harm. 

For example, if you fear driving, part of your exposure therapy may be sitting in a car while someone drives, taking a driver's test, driving in an empty parking lot, and then driving in a busy intersection. Each step can be a success in the treatment process. During each exercise, you may be asked to track your anxiety on a scale of one to ten or 100. A therapist may accompany you to each exposure activity or ask you to complete an exposure worksheet at home to discuss in your next session. 

Getting The Most Out Of Therapy

There are many treatments available for anxiety disorders. With timely action and support, you may be able to reduce symptoms and increase positive coping skills in your life. 

When looking to get the most out of therapy for anxiety, be open and honest with your therapist about your successes and failures and follow through with the treatment plan to the best of your abilities. If they assign homework, try to complete it. It can be normal and okay to make a mistake or feel discouraged. If you find a bump in the road, let your therapist know, and keep trying to move forward. 

One of the first steps of treatment can be recognizing an issue, understanding you may require support, and finding the courage to seek 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.

Counseling Options 

Seeing a psychotherapist can help you delve more profoundly into your symptoms and their causes. A therapist can provide research-based skills and tools to master emotions, conquer fears, and lead a healthy and prosperous life. If you're interested in starting, consider online counseling.  

Online therapy can benefit those with anxiety, providing significant comfort. For example, you may not have to worry about finding a local therapist, being on a waiting list, or commuting to an office. With online therapy, you can attend video, phone, or live chat sessions with a licensed therapist from your home. As studies indicate that most people feel most comfortable at home, online therapy can be highly effective. Additionally, one study found that 71% of its participants preferred online therapy to in-person methods and found it more effective. 

If you're interested in learning more about how online therapy might benefit you, consider signing up for a platform like BetterHelp, which offers over 30,000 therapists experienced in various specialties, including anxiety disorders. 

Takeaway

Anxiety disorders can affect your ability to function in your day-to-day life, and dealing with the symptoms on your own can be challenging. Reaching out for help may be a brave first step in reducing stress and anxiety in your life. If you're interested in getting started, consider reaching out to a counselor for further insight and compassionate guidance.

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