Anxiety Disorders and Effective Treatment
Published by the American Psychological Association
Everyone feels anxious from time to time. Stressful situations
such as meeting tight deadlines or important social obligations often
make us nervous or fearful. Experiencing mild anxiety may help a person
become more alert and focused on facing challenging or threatening
But individuals who experience extreme
fear and worry that does not subside may be suffering from an anxiety
disorder. The frequency and intensity of anxiety can be overwhelming and
interfere with daily functioning. Fortunately, the majority of people
with an anxiety disorder improve considerably by getting effective
What are the major kinds of anxiety disorders?
There are several major types of anxiety disorders, each with its own characteristics.
with generalized anxiety disorder have recurring fears or worries, such
as about health or finances, and they often have a persistent sense
that something bad is just about to happen. The reason for the intense
feelings of anxiety may be difficult to identify. But the fears and
worries are very real and often keep individuals from concentrating on
Panic disorder involves sudden, intense and
unprovoked feelings of terror and dread. People who suffer from this
disorder generally develop strong fears about when and where their next
panic attack will occur, and they often restrict their activities as a
A related disorder involves phobias, or intense
fears, about certain objects or situations. Specific phobias may involve
things such as encountering certain animals or flying in airplanes,
while social phobias involve fear of social settings or public places.
disorder is characterized by persistent, uncontrollable and unwanted
feelings or thoughts (obsessions) and routines or rituals (compulsions)
in which individuals engage to try to prevent or rid themselves of these
thoughts. Examples of common compulsions include washing hands or
cleaning house excessively for fear of germs, or checking work
repeatedly for errors.
Someone who suffers severe
physical or emotional trauma such as from a natural disaster or serious
accident or crime may experience post-traumatic stress disorder.
Thoughts, feelings and behavior patterns become seriously affected by
reminders of the event, sometimes months or even years after the
Symptoms such as extreme fear,
shortness of breath, racing heartbeat, insomnia, nausea, trembling and
dizziness are common in these anxiety disorders. Although they may begin
at any time, anxiety disorders often surface in adolescence or early
adulthood. There is some evidence that anxiety disorders run in
families; genes as well as early learning experiences within families
seem to make some people more likely than others to experience these
Why is it important to seek treatment for these disorders?
If left untreated, anxiety disorders can have severe consequences.
For example, some people who suffer from recurring panic attacks avoid
any situation that they fear may trigger an attack. Such avoidance
behavior may create problems by conflicting with job requirements,
family obligations or other basic activities of daily living.
who suffer from an untreated anxiety disorder often also suffer from
other psychological disorders, such as depression, and they have a
greater tendency to abuse alcohol and other drugs. Their relationships
with family members, friends and coworkers may become very strained. And
their job performance may decline.
Are there effective treatments for anxiety disorders?
Absolutely. Most cases of anxiety disorder can be treated
successfully by appropriately trained mental health professionals such
as licensed psychologists. Research has demonstrated that a form of
psychotherapy known as "cognitive-behavioral therapy" (CBT) can be
highly effective in treating anxiety disorders. Psychologists use CBT to
help people identify and learn to manage the factors that contribute to
Behavioral therapy involves using techniques to
reduce or stop the undesired behaviors associated with these disorders.
For example, one approach involves training patients in relaxation and
deep breathing techniques to counteract the agitation and rapid, shallow
breathing that accompany certain anxiety disorders.
cognitive therapy, patients learn to understand how their thoughts
contribute to the symptoms of anxiety disorders, and how to change those
thought patterns to reduce the likelihood of occurrence and the
intensity of reaction. The patient's increased cognitive awareness is
often combined with behavioral techniques to help the individual
gradually confront and tolerate fearful situations in a controlled, safe
Along with psychotherapy, appropriate medications
may have a role in treatment. In cases where medications are used, the
patient's care may be managed collaboratively by more than one provider
of treatment. It is important for patients to realize that there are
side effects to any drugs, which must be monitored closely by the
provider who prescribed the medication.
How can a licensed psychologist help someone suffering from an anxiety disorder?
Licensed psychologists are highly trained and qualified to diagnose
and treat people with anxiety disorders using techniques based on best
available research. Psychologists' extensive training includes
understanding and using a variety of psychotherapies, including CBT.
sometimes use other approaches to effective treatment in addition to
individual psychotherapy. Group psychotherapy, typically involving
unrelated individuals who all have anxiety disorders, can be an
effective approach to delivering treatment and providing support.
Further, family psychotherapy can help family members better understand
their loved one's anxiety and learn new ways of interacting that do not
reinforce the anxiety and associated dysfunctional behaviors.
suffering from anxiety disorders may also want to consider mental
health clinics or other specialized treatment programs dealing with
specific anxiety disorders such as panic or phobias that may be
available in their local area.
How long does psychological treatment take?
The large majority of people who suffer from an anxiety disorder are
able to reduce or eliminate their anxiety symptoms and return to normal
functioning after several months of appropriate psychotherapy. Indeed,
many people notice improvement in symptoms and functioning within a few
treatment sessions. The patient should be comfortable from the outset
with the psychotherapist. Together the patient and psychotherapist
should develop an appropriate treatment plan. The patient's cooperation
is crucial, and there must be a strong sense that the patient and
therapist are collaborating well as a team to treat the anxiety
No one plan works well for all patients. Treatment needs
to be tailored to the needs of the patient and to the type of disorder,
or disorders, from which the individual suffers. The psychotherapist
and patient should work together to assess whether a treatment plan
seems to be on track. Patients respond differently to treatment, and
adjustments to the plan sometimes are necessary. Anxiety disorders can
severely impair a person's functioning in work, family and social
environments. But the prospects for long-term recovery are good for most
individuals who seek appropriate professional treatment. People who
suffer from anxiety disorders can work with a qualified and experienced
mental health professional such as a licensed psychologist to help them
regain control of their feelings and thoughts — and their lives.