Treatment for the Symptoms of Anxiety Disorders

How to alleviate the symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder with medication, therapy, diet, and lifestyle changes.

A doctor explaining different anxiety medications to a patient
Doctor talking to older woman patient

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (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:

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 them up to 6 weeks 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.

• 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 for these 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.

• 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 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).

• 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 needed. 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.

Treating Anxiety with Therapy

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 manage it.

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 most effectively treated with psychotherapy — sometimes combined with medication — but lifestyle changes may also help to stem the symptoms in some individuals.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that dietary tweaks, consistent exercise, and relaxation techniques may help with both the physical and mental symptoms of anxiety. They can also help to boost overall mood, lift self-esteem, and grant patients a sense of control over their disorder.

Treating Anxiety with Dietary Changes

No scientific studies have linked dietary remedies to decreased symptoms of anxiety. But with no side effects to speak of, these “all-natural” anxiety remedies are worth discussing with your doctor:

Chamomile for stress relief. Extensive studies show that some compounds in chamomile interact with the same brain receptors as do drugs like Valium. A cup of tea won’t have the same effect as an anti-anxiety medication, but a study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania demonstrated that patients with GAD benefited significantly more when taking a chamomile supplement versus a placebo.

Tryptophan — a compound found in cheese, peanut butter, nuts, sesame seeds, oats, milk, poultry, and bananas — has been linked to the production of serotonin, a “feel-good” neurotransmitter in your brain. Upping your intake of tryptophan-heavy foods could help promote feelings of peace and wellbeing.

Protein at breakfast can stabilize your mood all day long. This is a nutritional guideline that everyone should follow, but it may be especially important for those with anxiety. Keeping your blood sugar level with slow-digesting protein can make you less reactive to negative situations — no one responds positively to stress when they’re feeling weak and hungry!

In general, people suffering from anxiety should avoid the following as much as possible:

Caffeine: Caffeine is a stimulant, and can make an already anxious person feel jittery and out-of-control. It can also cause your body to mimic some symptoms of panic attacks (like rapid heartbeat or excessive sweating). If you have a history of panic attacks, experiencing these symptoms again can actually trigger another panic attack — even if there’s no other noticeable cause.

Alcohol: Some people who suffer from anxiety turn to alcohol to calm themselves after a difficult day, or distract their minds from fears and worries. But this is, at best, a short-term solution that is probably making the problem worse in the long run. Alcohol can disrupt sleep, which can throw off your body’s circadian rhythm and exacerbate symptoms of anxiety. Plus, excessive drinking can lead you to doing things you regret — which will most likely strengthen feelings of guilt and anxiety.

Excessive sugar: Sugar, in large amounts, can have the same effect on your body as does caffeine. Limiting it where possible may help your moods stay on an even level.

Treating Anxiety with Lifestyle Changes

Exercising at least three days a week can have benefits far beyond weight control. Exercise has been shown to create new brain cells (helping you stay sharp in stressful situations) and produce a calming effect on the brain, allowing you to respond to stressors without slipping into an anxious overdrive.

Plus, many GAD sufferers preach the “distracting” quality of exercise — it’s difficult to hyperfocus on your anxieties when you’re pushing through the last mile of a run. Learning relaxation exercises (like meditation, yoga, or deep breathing techniques”) can also help to decrease anxiety.

Meditation may feel daunting to someone overcome with worry, but it all begins with a few minutes of quiet, focused breathing each day. Simply engaging with the practice on a regular basis and committing yourself to improving — however slightly — can help you control anxiety and improve your overall outlook on life.

If practiced properly, meditation can:

1. Help you relax. Sitting still for long periods of time and breathing steadily can calm a racing heart and save you from a desire to overthink and “fix” everything.

2. Teach you how to self-observe — without judging. Many who suffer from anxiety are ashamed that they feel so controlled by their worries and fears. Meditation teaches you to recognize your own thought patterns and identify where they lead to anxiety — without berating yourself for feeling the “wrong” way.

3. Help you identify and focus on tension. Some people who suffer from chronic anxiety feel like they couldn’t relax even if they wanted to. They’re on-edge all the time, and their bodies no longer understand what it means to feel relaxed. Regular meditation can help you set a baseline for what “calm” feels like, which will help you identify the first signs of tension. Instead of living your life in “24/7 anxiety” mode, begin to recognize ups and downs and start to identify your triggers.

Making these changes won’t “cure” your anxiety. But if you have a strong support system and treatment plan in place, these simple tweaks may help you feel more in control of your GAD — not the other way around.