We’ve all felt symptoms of anxiety at some point in our lives. The lead up to a big test or presentation at work, maybe a particularly bumpy plane ride, and perhaps even when you couldn’t find where you parked your car in a big garage –– these can all bring on those familiar anxious symptoms like profuse sweating, racing heartbeat, and uncontrollable worry. It’s perfectly normal to feel anxious occasionally, especially for good reason.
However, when anxiety is prolonged far beyond the triggering event, or you start to develop panic attacks, and symptoms start to impact your everyday life, it could be time to consider looking into anxiety therapy. Anxiety is a common disorder and easily treatable as long as you find the right anxiety therapist, who can help identify your individual issue and help put together a treatment plan.
Anxiety is grouping of symptoms that are a result of the mind and body's reaction to stressful, dangerous, or unfamiliar situations. It's the sense of uneasiness, distress, or dread you feel before a significant event or a phobia trigger. A certain level of anxiety is normal, healthy, and helps us stay alert and safe. However, for those suffering from an anxiety disorder, it’s at a level that debilitates everyday life.
As mentioned earlier, it’s important to remember that everyone feels anxiety to some degree regularly throughout their life. Fear and anxiety can be helpful emotions that can sense danger or threats and help us adapt to our environment. Anxiety disorders occur when significant distress impairs the ability to function in important facets of life, such as work, school, or relationships.
There are many potential risk factors for anxiety disorders. Most likely, people experience multiple different combinations of risk factors, such as neurobiological factors, genetic markers, environmental factors, and life experiences. There is significant research identifying risk factors for anxiety disorders that suggests both nature and nurture are very relevant. It is important to note that no single risk factor is definitive. No preexisting conditions guarantee the development of an anxiety disorder, and many people who may have a risk factor might not ever show symptoms. Though, it is widely documented that a genetic risk factor is present for all anxiety disorders.
It’s also important to note that most individuals who experience significant anxiety experience multiple different types of anxiety. Given this fact, it is not surprising that many risk factors are shared across anxiety disorders, or have the same underlying causes, which is important to identify and address before beginning a treatment plan or anxiety therapy.
Anxiety is a common disorder that can manifest in so many ways. Understanding the differences can help determine what a patient needs. For example, panic attack treatment, anxiety disorder treatment, and social anxiety treatment all require different approaches and plans. Thought there are many anxiety-related disorders, they are generally divided into three main categories:
1. Anxiety disorders: Anxiety disorders are characterized by excessive fear or emotional response to perceived or real threat, and/or worry about a future threat and can have negative behavioral and emotional consequences felt in everyday life.
At its most broad, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterized by excessive, uncontrollable worry over events and activities and their potential negative outcomes –– rational or not. For anxiety disorder treatment to be considered, the fear and worry must cause significant distress or interfere with daily life, occupational, academic, or social functioning. Another diagnosis requirement is that the symptoms cannot be better attributed to another mental disorder or be caused by substances, medications, or medical illness.
Another anxiety disorder is panic disorder, which is signified by a patient’s experience of sudden panic symptoms that generally come without warning or specific triggers. The feelings are usually cyclical in nature with persistent, lingering worry that said panic symptoms will return and fear of those panic symptoms. Symptoms include recurrent expected or unexpected panic attacks that can last from a few minutes to up to an hour. Panic attack treatment is non invasive, and usually doesn’t require medication.
An anxiety disorder may also be related to a specific phobia if there is a persistent and excessive fear of a specific object or situation. Common phobia related anxiety disorders include a fear of flying, heights, certain animals, or seeing blood. The feeling of fear is triggered by the presence or anticipation of the object/situation and exposure to the phobic stimulus results in an immediate fear response or panic attack. In most cases, the fear is disproportionate to the actual danger posed by the object or situation, and most adults with specific phobias will recognize that their fear is excessive or unreasonable.
2. Obsessive-compulsive and related disorders: Obsessive-compulsive and related disorders are characterized by obsessive, intrusive thoughts like a fixation over hygiene or appearance that trigger related, compulsive behaviors like repeated hand-washing, or excessive exercise. These repeated and persistent thoughts, or obsessions, typically cause distress that an individual attempts to alleviate by repeatedly performing specific actions, or compulsions. Examples of common obsessions include: fear that failing to do things in a particular way will result in harm to self or others, extreme anxiety about being dirty or contaminated by germs, concern about forgetting to do something important that may result in bad outcomes, or obsessions around exactness or symmetry. Examples of common compulsions include: double checking, counting or ordering, and performing a mental action like praying. Other disorders included excoriation (skin-picking), hoarding, body dysmorphic disorder, and trichotillomania (hair-pulling).
3. Trauma and stress related disorders: Trauma and stress related anxiety disorders are related to a traumatic experience like the unexpected death of a loved one, a car accident, or a violent incident. It can also be triggered by a stressor such as a divorce, big life transition, or even moving). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the most well-known trauma- and stressor related disorder. This category also includes Acute Stress Disorder and Adjustment Disorder.
Other categories of anxiety disorders include: separation anxiety disorder, selective mutism, and agoraphobia as well as disorders that are substance-induced or are a result of other medical conditions.
As previously mentioned, anxiety disorders aren’t usually standalone because an excessive fear of becoming embarrassed or humiliated in social situations from anxiety often leads to significant avoidance behaviors which can cause a need for social anxiety disorder treatment.
No matter which disorder from which an individual is suffering, it’s important to know that treatment can help and, for many fear related issues, talk therapy for anxiety is often the most effective option. That’s because talk therapy for anxiety — unlike anxiety medication alone —treats more than just the symptoms of the problem. Talk therapy can help uncover the underlying causes of worries and fears; look at situations in new, less frightening ways; and develop better coping and problem-solving skills. Overall, different modalities of therapy offer the tools to overcome anxiety.
Because anxiety disorders differ so considerably, therapy should be tailored to fit the symptoms and diagnosis. The length of therapy will also depend on the type and severity of the anxiety disorder. However, many anxiety therapies are relatively short-term. According to the American Psychological Association, many people improve significantly within 8 to 10 therapy sessions. While many different types of therapy are used to treat anxiety, the most popular approaches are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and exposure therapy, and can either be used separately or together.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most widely-used therapy for anxiety disorders because research has shown it to be effective in the treatment of many anxiety related issues like panic disorder, phobias, social anxiety disorder, and generalized anxiety disorder, among many other conditions. CBT works by addressing negative patterns and distortions in the way one looks at the world through a two pronged approach. Cognitive therapy examines how negative thoughts, or cognitions, contribute to anxiety. Behavior therapy examines how a person behaves and reacts in situations that trigger anxiety.
It’s only natural for a person to avoid situations that cause feelings of anxiety. Aside from the inconvenience factor, the problem with avoiding fears is that it leaves little room to overcome them. In fact, avoiding fears often makes them stronger. Exposure therapy, as the name suggests, exposes a person to the situations or objects that they fear. The philosophy is that through repeated exposures, a patient will feel an increasing sense of control over the situation and anxiety will diminish. The exposure is done in one of two ways: A therapist may ask you to imagine the scary situation, or you may confront it in real life. may be used alone, or it may be conducted as part of cognitive behavioral therapy.
In addition to talk therapy treatment, it’s also a good idea to explore complementary therapies designed to bring down overall stress levels and help achieve emotional balance. Exercise is a natural stress alleviation and anxiety reliever. Research shows that as little as 30 minutes of exercise three to five times a week can provide significant anxiety relief. Additionally, relaxation techniques such as mindfulness meditation and progressive muscle relaxation, when practiced regularly, can reduce anxiety and increase feelings of emotional well-being. Though not for everyone, hypnosis is sometimes used in combination with CBT for anxiety, which involves the patient entering a state of deep relaxation, and a hypnotherapist using different therapeutic techniques to help face fears and look at them in new ways.
So, how do you find an anxiety therapist near you?
Asking for referrals from your physician or trusted friend or family member is a great place to start. Using a trusted like Advekit can help get you connected with an anxiety therapist with the click of a button. Unfortunately, here is no quick fix for anxiety, but finding the right therapist and treatment will ultimately lead to results. The most important thing is to stick with treatment and follow your therapist’s advice.
Alison LaSov, LMFT
Alison LaSov is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist with experience treating clients struggling with anxiety and depression. She predominantly focuses on mental health intervention for children and adolescents, particularly those who are in crisis. She has worked within the Los Angeles education system treating students with Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), as well as supervised a non-profit Teen Crisis Hotline out of Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Alison earned her B.A. from UCLA and M.A. from Pepperdine University. She is a native to Los Angeles and co-founder at Advekit.