Benefits Of Therapy For Anxiety

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated May 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, 18% of Americans will experience an anxiety disorder in a given year, making it the most common type of mental health condition in the country. That said, mental illnesses in this category are generally considered treatable. If you want to learn more about addressing symptoms of anxiety, see below. We’ll discuss details on common anxiety-related disorders and their symptoms, types of therapy for anxiety, and guidance on how to connect with a therapist.

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Anxiety doesn’t have to be debilitating

Types of anxiety disorders and their symptoms

It’s not uncommon or necessarily a cause for concern to experience feelings of anxiety from time to time. It’s when these feelings are persistent, are difficult to control, and negatively impact daily life and functioning that they might qualify as an anxiety disorder. Though only a trained mental health professional can provide an accurate diagnosis, it can be helpful to get familiar with key symptoms of various anxiety disorders, so you know when it may be time to seek help. Some of these include:
  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), or persistent worry about everyday activities and situations (like school, work, finances, and health) that interferes with daily functioning
  • Social anxiety disorder, or social phobia, can manifest as intense fear around social situations where one could be judged, criticized, or rejected by others
  • Specific phobias can be defined as extreme fear related to a particular object, location, or situation. Some of the most common types are phobias of spiders, needles, snakes, heights, or public spaces
  • Panic disorder, or recurring panic attacks (which are not the same as anxiety attacks) and avoidance of situations in which a panic attack may occur
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is usually characterized by intrusive thoughts that lead a person to engage in compulsive behaviors to cope
  • Separation anxiety disorder, which refers to heightened levels of anxiety, fear, and distress related to being apart from someone, such as a parent or other attachment figure

Individuals with anxiety disorders may experience a variety of symptoms: mentally, they may face persistent anxious feelings; emotionally, they often struggle with irritability and trouble managing or controlling their emotions; and physically, they might suffer from muscle tension, fatigue, and sleep disturbances. In some cases, other physical health problems, such as chronic pain and thyroid issues, could make anxiety worse. Mental health professionals may be able to help identify these symptoms, providing support for both the emotional challenges and physical symptoms of anxiety.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) lays out guidelines to help clinicians identify and diagnose mental illnesses of all kinds, including anxiety disorders and other psychiatric disorders. If you meet with a therapist or psychiatrist for evaluation, they’ll typically compare your experience to the guidelines and use their professional experience to provide a diagnosis and initial treatment recommendations, if applicable.

Finally, note that some other mental and physical health conditions could also cause anxiety symptoms. Finding a method to treat borderline personality disorder, heart disease, substance use disorder, or any other underlying condition that may be causing or contributing to anxiety usually must come first.

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Stress- and trauma-related anxiety disorders

Some mental illnesses—such as post-traumatic stress disorder—used to be classified as anxiety disorders in previous versions of the DSM. Although they’re now listed under the category of stress- and trauma-related disorders instead, they’re worth mentioning here because anxiety symptoms can be part of how they manifest. Two such illnesses include:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can develop after a person has experienced a tragic, dangerous, or shocking event. One of the many specific symptoms of this disorder can be severe anxiety.

  • Adjustment disorders, which are adverse reactions to stress or a traumatic event that typically occur in children and adolescents, though they can affect adults too. They may manifest as a variety of symptoms, potentially including anxiety.

Types of therapy for anxiety symptoms

Does anxiety therapy work? According to the American Psychological Association, therapy is typically considered to be the first-line treatment for anxiety disorders and PTSD, sometimes in combination with anti-anxiety medication.

For those looking to reduce anxiety or relieve symptoms of clinical anxiety, there are various types of psychotherapy or talk therapy available. A qualified mental health care provider may be able to help you decide which one may be right for you and your specific symptoms. The goals of most therapeutic techniques for anxiety are usually to reduce symptoms and equip the client with healthy coping mechanisms for challenging emotions. Below are a few types of therapy that may be used to treat anxiety disorders.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most widely used forms of therapy for treating anxiety disorders and other mental health conditions. Research suggests that CBT is also “an effective, gold-standard treatment for anxiety and stress-related disorders.” This type of cognitive therapy focuses on teaching clients to learn to identify distorted thought patterns that may cause anxiety and shift them toward healthier, more constructive thoughts and behaviors. It may also include various techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation, cognitive restructuring, and mindfulness strategies. 

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)

Dialectical behavioral therapy is about finding effective and healthy ways to control one’s emotions. DBT may be conducted in an individual, family, or group setting, and it usually focuses on techniques such as distress tolerance, emotional control, mindfulness, and interpersonal effectiveness. Research notes that although CBT and DBT may both help reduce symptoms of anxiety, DBT may improve executive function (which can include things like planning, problem-solving, and emotional control) more significantly.

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)

Acceptance and commitment therapy is a form of CBT that focuses on mindfulness, acceptance, and values-based action to help individuals manage anxiety or other mental health concerns. ACT can help a person increase their psychological flexibility by learning to accept uncomfortable or negative thoughts and feelings and take action despite them. 

This approach emphasizes the benefits of living in the present moment and developing a more flexible relationship with one’s thoughts and emotions. Studies indicate that ACT may be effective in reducing anxiety symptoms in some individuals and improving overall mental well-being as well.

Exposure therapy

This type of therapy can be used to treat a variety of anxiety disorders and PTSD, though it’s perhaps most commonly associated with the treatment of specific phobias. Exposure therapy involves teaching the client relaxation techniques and then gradually exposing them to anxiety-provoking situations within the therapeutic context. This may be done in person, online, or through virtual reality exposure, depending on the situation. The aim is to reduce the individual's anxiety response and improve their coping skills over time.

Systematic desensitization

Systematic desensitization, endorsed by mental health professionals and the American Psychiatric Association, can be a core part of treating mental health conditions, especially for people with anxiety disorders. It's a key technique in helping those with an anxiety disorder manage and reduce their symptoms effectively. Systematic desensitization involves a structured treatment plan in which individuals learn to overcome anxiety by gradually facing their fears in a controlled manner. 

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)

In the practice of EMDR for anxiety, a mental health professional who is trained in this specific technique will usually verbally guide you through an exploration of anxiety-inducing memories or scenarios while you move your eyes back and forth in a specific pattern and timing. It’s commonly associated with treatment for PTSD and other trauma-related conditions, but it may sometimes be used to address other anxiety symptoms as well.

Other treatment options for an anxiety disorder

In some cases, a psychiatrist or doctor may prescribe certain medications to help individuals find temporary relief from severe anxiety or to minimize the most distressing symptoms as needed. These will usually be suggested in conjunction with some form of therapy. Do not start, stop, or change any medication without consulting your doctor or psychiatrist.  

In addition to the clinical treatment methods listed above, alternative methods may also be beneficial in managing anxiety symptoms for some people. Examples include meditation, mindfulness, yoga, journaling, deep breathing exercises, aromatherapy, and animal-assisted therapy. Talk to your mental health care provider if you’re interested in these.

Finally, self-care and healthy lifestyle changes also support improved mental health in many people. Examples include getting enough sleep, eating nutritious foods, exercising regularly, establishing and engaging with a social support system, and learning healthy stress-management techniques. You might also talk to your doctor or therapist about support groups for specific anxiety disorders that could allow you to build relationships with others experiencing similar symptoms and learn new coping strategies.

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Anxiety doesn’t have to be debilitating

How do I find anxiety therapy near me?

If you’ve decided to try therapy for anxiety symptoms or another mental health concern, the next steps are to decide on a format and get in touch with a mental health specialist or therapy provider, such as a licensed counselor, psychologist, or other mental health professional. If you want to meet with a counselor in person, you can ask your doctor for a referral, check with your insurance company for in-network clinicians, or do an internet search for therapy providers in your area. Organizations such as the Anxiety and Depression Association of America may provide resources to find help. 

Before selecting one, you’ll typically want to look into their credentials, consider their expertise, and determine if their fees match your budget. Next, you’ll need to contact their office to find out if they are available and schedule your first appointment.

Exploring online therapy for anxiety disorders

Although meeting with a therapist in person is the traditional method, new formats like online therapy have become popular in recent years. With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist according to your answers to a brief questionnaire. Then, you can meet with them via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging from the comfort of home or anywhere else you have a stable internet connection to address the challenges you may be facing. This format can be more convenient and comfortable whether you’re having trouble finding therapy providers in your area or you simply prefer to control your own therapy environment.

The next question many people have is: Does online therapy for anxiety work? As a growing body of research indicates, online and in-person therapy seem to offer similar benefits in most cases. Consider, for instance, a 2020 study suggesting that digital interventions “can support sustained and clinically meaningful improvements” in anxiety and major depression.

Takeaway

There are several different types of anxiety disorders that a person may experience, from generalized anxiety disorder to obsessive-compulsive disorder. Even some stressor- and trauma-related disorders like PTSD may include symptoms of anxiety. Some type of therapy is usually recommended for treating anxiety, sometimes in combination with medication and/or lifestyle changes. If you’re looking for support in addressing anxiety symptoms or another mental illness, meeting with a licensed therapist online or in person is usually recommended.

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