Treatment for Anxiety Disorders

Effective treatments for each of the anxiety disorders have been developed through research. In general, two types of treatment are available for an anxiety disorder-medication and specific types of psychotherapy (sometimes called “talk therapy”). Both approaches can be effective for most disorders. The choice of one or the other, or both, depends on the patient’s and the doctor’s preference, and also on the particular anxiety disorder.

Medications

Psychiatrists or other physicians can prescribe medications for anxiety disorders. These doctors often work closely with other mental health professionals who provide psychotherapy. Although medications won’t cure an anxiety disorder, they can keep the symptoms under control and enable you to lead a normal, fulfilling life. The major classes of medications used for various anxiety disorders are described below.

Antidepressants

A number of medications that were originally approved for treatment of depression have been found to be effective for anxiety disorders. If your doctor prescribes an antidepressant, you will need to take it for several weeks before symptoms start to fade.

Some of the newest antidepressants are called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These medications act in the brain on a chemical messenger called serotonin. They are started at a low dose and gradually increased until they reach a therapeutic level. SSRIs tend to have fewer side effects than older antidepressants. People do sometimes report feeling slightly nauseated or jittery when they first start taking SSRIs, but that usually disappears with time. Some people also experience sexual dysfunction when taking some of these medications. An adjustment in dosage or a switch to another SSRI will usually correct bothersome problems. It is important to discuss side effects with your doctor so that he or she will know when there is a need for a change in medication.

Similarly, antidepressant medications called tricyclics are started at low doses and gradually increased. Tricyclics have been around longer than SSRIs and have been more widely studied for treating anxiety disorders. For anxiety disorders other than OCD, they are as effective as the SSRIs, but many physicians and patients prefer the newer drugs because the tricyclics sometimes cause dizziness, drowsiness, dry mouth, and weight gain. When these problems persist or are bothersome, a change in dosage or a switch in medications may be needed.

Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) are the oldest class of antidepressant medications. People who take MAOIs are put on a restrictive diet because these medications can interact with some foods and beverages, including cheese and red wine, which contain the chemical tyramine. MAOIs also interact with some other medications, including SSRIs. Interactions between MAOIs and other substances can cause dangerous elevations in blood pressure or other potentially life-threatening reactions.

Other Medications

Beta-blockers, such as propranolol, are often used to treat heart conditions but have also been found to be helpful in certain anxiety disorders, particularly in social anxiety. When a feared situation, such as giving an oral presentation, can be predicted in advance, your doctor may prescribe a beta-blocker that can be taken to keep your heart from pounding, your hands from shaking, and other physical symptoms from developing.

Taking Medications

  • Before taking medication for an anxiety disorder:
  • Ask your doctor to tell you about the effects and side effects of the drug he or she is prescribing.
  • Tell your doctor about any alternative therapies or over-the-counter medications you are using.
  • Ask your doctor when and how the medication will be stopped. Some drugs can’t safely be stopped abruptly; they have to be tapered slowly under a physician’s supervision.
  • Be aware that some medications are effective in anxiety disorders only as long as they are taken regularly, and symptoms may occur again when the medications are discontinued.
  • Work together with your doctor to determine the right dosage of the right medication to treat your anxiety disorder.

Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy involves talking with a trained mental health professional to learn how to deal with problems like anxiety disorders.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Research has shown that a form of psychotherapy that is effective for several anxiety disorders, particularly panic disorder and social anxiety, is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). It has two components. The cognitive component helps people change thinking patterns that keep them from overcoming their fears. For example, a person with panic disorder might be helped to see that his or her panic attacks are not really heart attacks as previously feared; the tendency to put the worst possible interpretation on physical symptoms can be overcome.

The behavioral component of CBT seeks to change people’s reactions to anxiety-provoking situations. A key element of this component is exposure, in which people confront the things they fear. An example would be a treatment approach called exposure and response prevention for people with OCD. If the person has a fear of dirt and germs, the therapist may encourage them to dirty their hands, then go a certain period of time without washing. The therapist helps the patient to cope with the resultant anxiety. Eventually, after this exercise has been repeated a number of times, anxiety will diminish.

A major aim of CBT and behavioral therapy is to reduce anxiety by eliminating beliefs or behaviors that help to maintain the anxiety disorder. CBT or behavioral therapy generally lasts about 12 weeks. It may be conducted in a group, provided the people in the group have sufficiently similar problems. Group therapy is particularly effective for people with social phobia.

Medication may be combined with psychotherapy, and for many people this is the best approach to treatment. As stated earlier, it is important to give any treatment a fair trial. And if one approach doesn’t work, the odds are that another one will, so don’t give up.

If you have recovered from an anxiety disorder, and at a later time it recurs, don’t consider yourself a “treatment failure”. Recurrences can be treated effectively, just like an initial episode. In fact, the skills you learned in dealing with the initial episode can be helpful in coping with a setback.

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