Anxiety, part 2: Diagnosis and treatment
Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger
Read Part 1 of this article to learn about anxiety symptoms, types, and causes.
How do I know if I have anxiety?
Everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their life. If you think you may have an anxiety disorder, there are steps you can take to know for certain:
- Keep track of your symptoms: When you feel anxious, write down what you’re experiencing. Try to pinpoint the cause of your feelings. Even if that cause is something ordinary, it’s helpful to write it down. By keeping track of your symptoms and triggers, you can capture crucial information that can help a medical professional give you a more accurate diagnosis.
- Ask your doctor: An online anxiety quiz won’t provide an accurate assessment of your mental health. Only a medical professional can give you a diagnosis. Schedule an appointment with your primary care physician (PCP) and share your concerns with them.
- See a therapist: Your doctor can give you a referral to a therapist, or you can look for one on your own. A therapist can give you a professional diagnosis and offer treatment for your anxiety disorder.
It’s fairly common to be diagnosed with another disorder alongside anxiety, and you may develop anxiety in response to trauma or other mental health disorders.
Disorders related to anxiety include:
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Eating disorders
How to treat anxiety
Most long-term anxiety treatment plans include medication, psychotherapy (also called “talk therapy”), or a combination of both. There are also steps you can take in the moment to treat acute anxiety symptoms or even a panic attack.
These types of psychotherapy can help treat anxiety disorders:
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
CBT is the most common, most successful kind of talk therapy for anxiety disorders. It helps you identify and challenge unhelpful thoughts or beliefs that feed your anxious behavior so you can develop healthier patterns of thinking. This change in thinking (“cognition”) ultimately leads to a change in how you live your life (“behavior”).
Exposure therapy is another method of treating phobias and other anxiety disorders. In it, you confront your fear in one of four ways:
- Direct, physical exposure
- Imaginary exposure
- Virtual reality exposure
- Sensation-based exposure
The key to exposure therapy is that it’s a safe experience guided by your therapist. Many people mistakenly think exposure therapy relies on tricks or deceit to put someone in situations they’re afraid of. This isn’t the case.
The goal of exposure therapy isn’t to force you into a situation so you can “get over it” quickly, but to gradually expose you to your fears so you can learn that the fears are misplaced. With time and repeated exposure, you learn to stop avoiding your fears and can improve your quality of life.
Your therapist may teach you mindfulness techniques to help reduce anxiety symptoms. Mindfulness trains you to focus without judgment on the current moment instead of ruminating (thinking deeply) about the past or worrying about the future. You also focus on any of your physical senses—sight, smell, touch, sound, or taste—to help calm your mind.
If professional help isn’t available to you at this time, mindfulness apps like Headspace can be a great short-term option.
Anxiety disorder medications
If you struggle with an anxiety disorder, your doctor may prescribe an anxiety medication. These medications can reduce the intensity and frequency of anxiety symptoms.
Your anxiety medication will likely be for one of two things:
- Short-term relief of current symptoms (medications include benzodiazepines, sedatives, beta blockers, etc.)
- Long-term symptom management (medications include antidepressants, buspirone, etc.)
Self-care steps for acute anxiety and panic
In addition to getting help from a health care professional, you can take these steps on your own to try to decrease anxiety or panic in the moment:
- Breathe deeply: Take a deep breath in. Slowly let it out. You may find it helpful to count the length of your breaths—for instance, breathing in for four seconds, holding your breath for four seconds, and breathing out for eight seconds.
- Limit stimuli: Close your eyes. Find a quiet place.
- Practice mindfulness: Check in with your five senses. Clear your mind and allow yourself to notice what you’re feeling without judging it. Meditate. Introduce soothing sensations, such as relaxing smells or soft candlelight.
- Go for a walk: Our bodies respond positively to exercise and motion, as well as being in nature. If you can, go for a walk outside.
- Tell a friend: Panic attacks often leave us feeling scared and alone. Talking with a friend or loved one can help you remember what’s true: You are not alone, and you are loved.
Get help now
If you’re in crisis, help is available now. For free, confidential 24/7 support, please call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or 1-800-273-TALK (8255),or text HOME to 741741.
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