Anxiety Disorders


Anxiety disorders are treatable, and most disorders can be treated with medication or psychotherapy. For some people, a combination of medication and psychotherapy may be the best treatment approach. Treatment choices depend on the type of disorder, the person’s preference, and the expertise of the doctor.

Psychotherapy (sometimes called “talk therapy”) involves talking with a trained clinician, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or counselor, to understand what caused an anxiety disorder and how to deal with it.

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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

A type of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is very useful in treating anxiety disorders. It can help people change the thinking patterns that support their fears and change the way they react to anxiety-provoking situations.

For example, CBT can help people with panic disorder learn that their panic attacks are not really heart attacks and help people with social phobia learn how to overcome the belief that others are always watching and judging them. When people are ready to confront their fears, they are shown how to use exposure techniques to desensitize themselves to situations that trigger their anxieties.

Exposure-Based Treatment

Exposure-based treatment has been used for many years to treat specific phobias. The person gradually encounters the object or situation that is feared, perhaps at first only through pictures or tapes, then later face-to-face. Sometimes the therapist will accompany the person to a feared situation to provide support and guidance. Exposure exercises are undertaken once the patient decides he is ready for it and with his cooperation.

To be effective, therapy must be directed at the person’s specific anxieties and must be tailored to his or her needs. A typical “side effect” is temporary discomfort involved with thinking about confronting feared situations.

Group Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be conducted individually or with a group of people who have similar problems. Group therapy is particularly effective for social phobia. Often “homework” is assigned for participants to complete between sessions. If a disorder recurs at a later date, the same therapy can be used to treat it successfully a second time.

Some people with anxiety disorders might benefit from joining a self-help or support group and sharing their problems and achievements with others. Internet chat rooms might also be useful in this regard, but any advice received over the Internet should be used with caution, as Internet acquaintances have usually never seen each other and false identities are common.

Support From Family and Friends

The family can be important in the recovery of a person with an anxiety disorder. Ideally, the family should be supportive but not help perpetuate their loved one’s symptoms. Family members should not trivialize the disorder or demand improvement without treatment.

Talking with a trusted friend or member of the clergy can also provide support, but it is not necessarily a sufficient alternative to care from an expert clinician.

Other Approaches

Stress management techniques and meditation can help people with anxiety disorders calm themselves and may enhance the effects of therapy. There is preliminary evidence that aerobic exercise may have a calming effect. Since caffeine, certain illicit drugs, and even some over-the-counter cold medications can aggravate the symptoms of anxiety disorders, avoiding them should be considered. Check with your physician or pharmacist before taking any additional medications.

Health Insurance Coverage

Most insurance plans, including health maintenance organizations (HMOs), will cover treatment for anxiety disorders. Check with your insurance company and find out. If you don’t have insurance, the Health and Human Services division of your county government may offer mental health care at a public mental health center that charges people according to how much they are able to pay. If you are on public assistance, you may be able to get care through your state Medicaid plan.

For More Information

To learn about more mental health resources, see Help for Mental Illness, from the National Institute of Mental Health at NIH.

Learn more about treatments for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

Learn more about treatments for panic disorder.

Learn more about treatments for social phobia.