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Anxiety is the body’s natural response to stressful situations. Its symptoms generally include shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, decreased or increased body temperature, and/or numbing sensations.
Anxiety is a completely natural part of life. Without it, our bodies wouldn’t experience that surge of adrenaline. It needs to help us fight or run away from danger.
Sometimes, our bodies’ responses to anxiety are triggered even when no physical or life-threatening danger abounds. Anxiety disorders and mental illness happen when anxiety gets out of control or lasts for an excessively long period of time. Discover the best anxiety treatments, from anxiety therapy to prescription medications.
What are anxiety disorders? What defines an anxiety disorder?
Anxiety disorders are defined as “any of various disorders (such as panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, a phobia, or generalized anxiety disorder) in which anxiety is a predominant feature.”
Mental health professionals define anxiety disorders as a group of disorders characterized by their own anxiety symptoms. Yet, these disorders generally share one common trait: they are accompanied by a lingering sense of fear, dread, or worry in non-life-threatening situations.
While anxiety itself isn’t necessarily bad, anxiety disorders are often extremely harmful for social and biological reasons. Socially, anxiety can prevent you from trying new activities and participating in the activities you already love. Biologically, they are linked to heart attacks, stroke, and even cancer.
Depending on the type of disorder, a person who suffers from anxiety might be too afraid to leave home, interact socially, or even board an airplane.
Anxiety disorders affect more than 40 million people in the U.S. and are the most common emotional disorder. While these disorders traditionally don’t discriminate (they affect people young and old, male and female), they affect some more than others.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “An estimated 31.1% of U.S. adults experience any anxiety disorder at some time in their lives.”
“In 2002, 19.1% of U.S. adults were diagnosed with an anxiety disorder; approximately 7% of children between the ages of 3 and 17 reported anxiety issues in the same year. Anxiety disorders are also more prevalent in women (23.4%) than in men (14.3%).”
Excessive fear can activate your fight-or-flight responses and flood the body with anxiety-inducing hormones. Added stressors like COVID-19 worries and the disruption of daily life and daily activities because of the coronavirus can cause anxiety. If left untreated, anxiety disorders can lead to other chronic conditions, health conditions, and illnesses, like substance abuse, chest pain, and chronic stress.
What are the different types of anxiety disorders?
There are several common types of anxiety disorders, and anxiety doesn’t always manifest itself the same way in every person. Its own symptoms also accompany each disorder. The six most common types of anxiety disorder are:
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Panic disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Social anxiety disorder
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
One of the most common anxiety disorders is generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). This anxiety disorder is commonly accompanied by a continuous stream of worried thoughts about mundane activities or events. Most people who experience this type of disorder commonly report difficulty focusing or completing tasks because they are often too engrossed in negative thoughts.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), while not as common as GAD, affects about 1.2% of the U.S. population. This disorder is often characterized by obsessive, recurring thoughts that are uncontrollable. Some of the most common thoughts revolve around ‘taboo’ topics, such as sex and pornography. Irrational fears include worrying about getting sick or obsessing over germs. OCD is sometimes accompanied by an obsession with self-harm or harming others. People who suffer from OCD cannot control these thoughts — even if they recognize the thoughts are irrational.
Panic disorders are another common anxiety disorder. This type of disorder is generally accompanied by panic attacks and irrational fears over mundane events. These attacks are often triggered by post-traumatic stress (see below) or mistaking everyday sounds for dangerous ones — such as confusing the sound of a car backfiring for gunshots. Many people who have panic disorders often enter a state of fear that is debilitating and overwhelming; the symptoms are often similar to those of a heart attack.
RELATED ARTICLE: Panic Attacks vs. Anxiety Attacks
Phobias are irrational fears of everyday activities or objects. Some people have a fear of flying that’s so debilitating they can’t even think about getting on a plane. Others have fears of snakes, spiders, and dogs. Some people even have phobias about numbers and small holes (we’re looking at you, iPhone 11 Pro).
While it’s normal to fearsome animals (like snakes and spiders) or turbulence on an airplane, these fears shouldn’t prevent you from actually getting on a plane or going for a hike in the forest.
Social phobias can also create intense fear and excessive anxiety.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
People diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) experience feelings of fear, dread, or panic, similar to those with panic disorders. Yet, PTSD is often triggered by memories of trauma or violence.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety disorder is a fear of social interaction. People who suffer from this disorder often avoid social situations, spend an irrational amount of time worrying about future social interactions, and are unknowingly embarrassed or humiliated in past social situations. They’re often too panicked to engage in conversation and/or become so afraid they can’t speak.
While these six disorders are often considered the most common, many people discover their symptoms don’t fall into one of these categories. If you find that your symptoms don’t align with any of the symptoms below, your symptoms may be related to one of the dozens of other anxiety disorders.
What are the symptoms of anxiety disorders?
Since there are so many different types of anxiety disorders, symptoms often vary. Yet, most people who experience one or more of the above anxiety disorders often report common symptoms. The most common anxiety symptoms include incessant worrying and feelings of dread or fear.
Many people who suffer from anxiety will experience both mental and physical symptoms. The most common mental symptoms include:
- Inability to focus on tasks
- Mental health issues (such as depression and sadness)
- Constant worrying
- Irrational thoughts
- Obsessive thoughts
- Overreaction to mundane events
- Inability to enjoy daily activities
Physical symptoms of anxiety disorders may include (but are not limited to):
- Shortness of breath
- Rapid/increased heart rate
- Sudden increase or decrease in body temperature
- Fainting or dizziness
- Digestive problems, such as IBS or indigestion
- Headaches and other chronic pain
A full list of the most common symptoms of anxiety includes (but is not limited to):
- Muscular aches
- Trembling and twitchiness
- Constant nervousness
- Profuse sweating
- Constant worrying
- Always expecting the worst
- Overexaggerating the seriousness of a situation
- Inability to concentrate
What are the causes of anxiety?
Since anxiety is a mental disorder, it’s usually caused by a combination of both biological and environmental factors.
Many studies support the theory that anxiety can be passed down from family member to family member through genetic markings. High numbers of people who suffer from generalized anxiety disorder also have at least one close relative that also suffers from a similar anxiety disorder.
Studies also prove that environmental factors could also play a huge role in whether a person will suffer from an anxiety disorder. Early childhood trauma, abuse, neglect, violence, and death can lead to such disorders later in life.
Other factors that can cause anxiety disorders to include but are not limited to:
- Chemical imbalances in the brain
- Threat perception
- Major life events
- A stressful job and/or work environment
- Withdrawal from drugs or certain medications
- Side effects of certain medications
- Phobias (such as agoraphobia)
- Underlying conditions and mental issues (such as depression)
- Caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, or narcotic use
What types of people get anxiety?
Anxiety disorders can be triggered by overconsumption of alcohol, nicotine, or caffeine or long-term problems. Common stressors and triggers include stressful work environments and chronic relationship problems.
Just about anyone can experience anxiety and the disorders associated with it. But the people who most commonly report experiencing chronic anxiety include individuals with:
- Avoidance personalities
- Biological predispositions to anxiety disorders
- Past traumas
- Chronic medical illnesses
How are anxiety disorders diagnosed?
It’s tempting to diagnose your own anxiety disorder, but most medical professionals don’t recommend it. Some people confuse the symptoms of an anxiety disorder with symptoms of another condition. Some conditions are physical (such as hyperthyroidism or side effects from medications), while other conditions could be related to undiagnosed mental disorders related to anxiety.
Mental health professionals commonly use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) to track anxiety symptoms and make an accurate diagnosis.
What is the best treatment for anxiety?
Treating anxiety doesn't require cookie-cutter solutions. Depending on your diagnosis, you’ll want to work with your doctor to explore the best treatment options. Many doctors will encourage you to try psychological treatments before writing out a prescription — though this does vary, depending on the severity of your anxiety and type of anxiety disorder. There are also plenty of self-help solutions for anxiety.
Some of the most common lifestyle changes that combat anxiety include the following.
Exercise can play a huge role in your physical and mental health and has been proven to ease your feelings of anxiety and improve your sense of well-being. Exercise can play a big role in stress management, too.
Sleep and Meditation
Getting enough quality sleep can help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. Professionals recommend getting at least eight hours of shut-eye each night to help your body rest, recharge, and regenerate cells. Studies also prove that meditation can help reduce stress and anxiety — sometimes almost as well as prescription drugs.
Cutting back on nicotine, alcohol, caffeine, and narcotics has also been shown to reduce anxiety and depression.
There is also something to be said about taking time for yourself each day; to be alone with your thoughts and meditate. There are many great meditation apps out there that can help guide you through the feeling of anxiety as you focus on your breath, and try to release the stress that you've felt throughout the day.
What are the most common anxiety therapies?
The most common therapy used to treat anxiety disorders is called cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). With CBT, the aim is first to recognize thought patterns that could lead to anxiety and then attempt to limit the distorted thinking or alter the scale and intensity of how you react to these thoughts.
Therapists generally recommend both talk therapy and/or medication to help combat anxiety. The most common types of talk therapy include:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy
- Exposure therapy
- Dialectical behavioral therapy/evidence-based therapy
- Psychoanalytic therapy
- Anti-anxiety medications
- Support groups or online therapy groups, such as Wisdo
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) helps the patient understand that many situations aren’t as bad as they might perceive them through questioning and rational thought.
A therapist (or online therapist, such as Talkspace or Betterhelp) will ask the patient a series of questions about a particularly painful or stressful situation. The therapist will then try to remove the patient from the situation's emotional charge to determine whether or not the situation's reaction or perceived pain was appropriate.
Many people will color a situation or an exchange with their own thoughts and feelings; sometimes, an exchange between two people will leave one person feeling upset and overwhelmed, and the other happy as can be. CBT therapists try to extract the facts from the emotions.
RELATED ARTICLE: What is Online Therapy?
Eye Movement Desensitization Therapy (EMDT)
Eye movement desensitization therapy (EMDT) may sound like a super-cool dance movement. Still, it’s actually a revolutionary form of psychotherapy practiced since the 1990s — though it’s gotten much more attention recently.
This type of therapy removes the trauma from emotionally-charged situations. A therapist will ask the patient questions about a traumatic event while engaging the patient in bilateral stimulation, such as tapping and eye movements. One 2012 EMDT study resulted in 77% of patients finding relief from PTSD.
Exposure Therapy Psychological Treatment
Exposure therapy is often used as an accompaniment to CBT. Patients who want to rewrite their stories during stressful situations are often asked to imagine the stressor or expose themselves to the stressor in real life.
Many people who suffer from anxiety avoid the situations that cause anxiety (people with social anxiety may avoid leaving their apartment while those with PTSD may avoid loud, sudden noises). Some mental health professionals believe that avoiding the stressor can be more harmful than the stressor's anxiety.
When you relive these moments or purposefully expose yourself to such stressors, you often find that they're not as bad as you build them up to be.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy/Evidence-Based Therapy
Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) is most commonly used with patients who have bipolar disorder, though it’s often used with any person who experiences difficulty with regulating emotions.
It employs mindfulness techniques, self-soothing, and trigger identification to help people proact instead of reacting to perceived negative stimuli.
Similarly, evidence-based therapy (EBT) uses factual information and evidence-based information to help patients determine real — or not real — in any given situation. Patients make decisions based on evidence facts and not on ‘intuition’ or societal norms. This type of therapy helps remove the negative self-talk and non-fact-based storytelling from any given situation.
Possibly one of the most common types of talk therapy, psychoanalytic therapy implores patients to revisit childhood traumas and past experiences to determine if the two are linked. Many psychoanalytic therapists will ask pointed questions to help patients revisit traumatic memories; after revisiting memories, patients discover if the past experiences are subconsciously linked to their current anxiety.
What are the best medications for anxiety?
Psychiatry is the prescription of mental health medications. If none of the above proves effective in treating your anxiety disorder, your doctor or therapist may prescribe medication, such as Xanax.
There are many different types of medications to treat anxiety. The most common are benzodiazepines, which are usually prescribed on a short type basis, or SSRI antidepressants, usually recommended as a long-term solution for anxiety.
These medications balance brain chemistry to block the chemicals that are triggered by your physical responses to stressors. They can reduce symptoms and, in some cases, eradicate them.
Many people who suffer from anxiety disorders generally include talk therapy or other psychological treatments in their mental health plan, though not all doctors recommend both types of treatments. Talkspace offers clients the best of both worlds with Talkspace Psychiatry. This online therapy provider will connect. you with a licensed psychiatrist that can help you navigate your feelings of anxiety and prescribe you medication if necessary.
Since many anxiety disorders are often accompanied by unique symptoms, stressors, and causes, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to anxiety. A doctor who prescribes benzodiazepines, like Xanax, for one patient may prescribe Zoloft (to increase serotonin) for another.
The most popular medications for anxiety include:
Many of these medications are also known under their authorized generic drug names; ask your doctor if you don’t recognize your prescribed medications' names.
Certain medications come with certain risk factors, including interactions with prescriptions for certain medical conditions.
Some doctors also prescribe naturopathic alternatives to patients who experience side effects with any above anxiety meds. Just some of the naturopathic alternatives include (cannabidiol) CBD oil, kava, and valerian. Before starting your own at-home anti-anxiety regimen, always check with your doctor, as some of these substances also come with side effects and may interact with other medications.
When should you seek treatment for anxiety?
It is perfectly normal to experience anxiety at some point. However, if you suffer from extreme anxiety attacks or have been suffering from them regularly for an extended period, you should seek help from a doctor or therapist. Other signs that you should seek help include if anxiety is:
- Interfering with your work
- Preventing you from doing things you love
- Interfering with your relationships
- Making you constantly feel depressed or irritable
- Triggering an addiction to alcohol or drugs
- Preventing you from leaving your home
Seek emergency treatment if you have had suicidal thoughts or behaviors.
Worries are unlikely to disappear on their own. In fact, leaving these issues unresolved may actually lead to increased anxiety. The earlier you seek help, the easier your anxiety may be to treat. If you or a loved one is suffering from anxiety, don't wait to get help.