Following a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), treatment should begin immediately to stop negative side effects from disrupting your life. Anxiety treatment shouldn’t take a one-size-fits-all approach, but most doctors recommend two main treatments: psychotherapy and medication.
If your anxiety exists alongside another condition — like depression, alcoholism, or ADHD — your doctor may advocate getting the other condition under control first before focusing on the anxiety. In some cases, anxiety is secondary to the other condition, and patients experience relief sooner than if they had focused on the anxiety alone.
Psychotherapy (also known as “talk therapy”) is one of the most effective treatments for GAD. It involves working with a trained mental health professional like a psychiatrist, psychologist, or a licensed social worker to unpack what led to the anxiety disorder and what techniques patients can learn to fight back.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a particular type of psychotherapy that has proven especially useful in treating anxiety. CBT works by confronting anxiety-inducing thoughts and behaviors, and exposing them as irrational. If a patient is unjustly worried about her financial situation, for example, the therapist might help construct a detailed monthly budget to help her see on paper that she is financially solvent. If social situations cause anxiety, the therapist might talk through a patient’s fears or feelings of judgment, pointing out where they don’t line up with reality.
For therapy to work, the patient must cooperate fully with the therapist — even when it’s difficult or embarrassing. Because of this, it’s important to establish a relationship with a therapist you can trust. Many people also benefit from group therapy sessions, which allow them to build relationships while discussing anxiety in a collegial, non-judgmental environment.
GAD is often treated with medication, which works best in conjunction with therapy. Therapy is a “slow burning” treatment process; medication can help keep the condition under control while a patient builds trust with her therapist and waits for the positive effects of therapy to manifest.
The range of anxiety medications include:
- Antidepressants: Both selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and tricyclic antidepressants can effectively treat anxiety. These medications are generally prescribed at low doses, which can be increased over time, depending on efficacy and side effects. Though these medications start to alter brain chemistry from the first dose, it can take up to 6 weeks for them to build up to therapeutic levels in the body. If your doctor prescribes antidepressants, it’s important that you stick with them long enough to see an effect.
o Side effects include nausea, “jitters,” dry mouth, drowsiness, weight gain, and sexual dysfunction.
- Anti-Anxiety Medications: Another option is a class of drugs called benzodiazepines, though doctors have shied away in recent years due to some shortcomings. Benzodiazepines generally start working faster than do antidepressants, but patients develop a tolerance quickly and require a higher dose. Dependency may become a problem, as are withdrawal symptoms when the medication is stopped.
o Side effects are generally mild, and usually only include drowsiness. Benzodiazepines are most effective for patients who haven’t abused drugs in the past. They are generally prescribed only for short periods of time while the patient undergoes other forms of treatment.
- Beta-Blockers: Beta-blockers like propranolol — normally used to treat heart conditions — can be helpful in combating the physical symptoms of anxiety, like sweating and increased heart rate. They can be used specifically before an anxiety-inducing event (like giving an important speech).
o Side effects can include cold hands, fatigue, or shortness of breath.
Most anxiety treatments do not start working immediately. It’s important to fully commit to treatment, push through setbacks, and reach out to friends and family for support whenever you need it. Relaxation exercises, like yoga or deep breathing techniques, can also prove helpful.
Anxiety can feel all-consuming. Throughout treatment, remember that you are more than your worries and fears. When progress feels slow, rekindle your interest in old hobbies or relationships — they can help you overcome lingering anxiety and get your life back on track.