Intense, unpleasant feelings of fear and anxiety characterize anxiety disorders. They often manifest as sudden panic attacks or irrational fears of objects or situations.
For example, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and relaxation techniques can be beneficial. Support groups are also beneficial. Anxiety can be treated with medication in combination with treatment.
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Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
The main component of CBT involves changing unhelpful thoughts that contribute to anxiety. People with anxiety disorders often think that their uncomfortable physical sensations, such as a racing heart or sweating are signs of an impending heart attack (this is a common misinterpretation of the body’s natural responses).
Your therapist will teach you skills to recognize when your unhelpful thoughts are occurring and how to challenge them using rational processes like testing their accuracy, considering other possible explanations, and re-framing them in more helpful ways. In addition, therapists will use anxiety therapy, particularly exposure therapy, to help patients confront the things they fear slowly and over time. This aims to change how a person responds to anxiety-provoking situations and is consistent with the extinction learning theory. It is the most evidence-based treatment for anxiety disorders and other mental health conditions.
Rather than avoiding situations, objects, thoughts, events or specific phobias that trigger anxiety symptoms, exposure therapy allows you to confront them gradually. It may include in vivo exposure, where you are instructed to directly experience your fear, such as handling a spider or giving a speech to an audience, or imaginal exposure, which involves vividly imagining what you’re afraid of.
EMDR uses bilateral stimulation, such as eye movements or tapping, to help people process traumatic life experiences that can cause anxiety, panic attacks and depression. It’s most effective for trauma-related anxiety, such as PTSD or social anxiety disorder.
If anxiety leads you to avoid people or situations that might trigger your symptoms, therapists can help you change these behaviors. Your therapist may teach you techniques like distraction and projection, which allow you to escape from your thoughts and feelings by distracting or redirecting them. Your therapist can also introduce you to recognize and challenge your negative, anxious thoughts. This can include examining the evidence for your fears, analyzing unhelpful beliefs and determining the likelihood that negative predictions will come true.
In addition, therapists can provide behavioral activation activities to encourage you to spend more time doing and engaging with others, which will help desensitize you from your anxiety. Other therapies that address anxiety can include interpersonal therapy (IPT), EMDR and psychodynamic therapy.
If you suffer from a social anxiety disorder, a support group can help you learn how to interact with others in a safe, nonjudgmental environment. You’ll also learn how to manage your anxiety symptoms and improve your quality of life.
CBT therapists often conduct group therapy to help people with social anxiety disorder. These sessions may include role-playing to help participants practice skills such as maintaining eye contact or speaking in front of a group. These sessions can help you build confidence and develop a support network.
In addition to psychotherapy, a healthy diet and regular exercise can reduce anxiety symptoms. A therapist may recommend that you try activities such as meditation, yoga or deep breathing to help ease your anxiety.
Many anxiety disorders can be managed with psychotherapy and lifestyle changes, but sometimes medication is needed. A psychiatrist or psychologist will help you decide if medicine is right. They will also monitor your progress.
A therapist will work with you to identify your triggers and teach you relaxation techniques. They may use systematic desensitization, in which you are gradually exposed to the object or situation that causes your symptoms.
With cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), you will learn to identify and change the irrational thoughts that fuel your anxiety, such as negative distortions and predictions. During behavior therapy, you will be encouraged to participate in activities that trigger your anxiety and learn that the feared outcomes are unlikely.