Effective treatments for each of the anxiety disorders have been developed through research. In general, two types of treatment are available for an anxiety disorder-medication and specific types of psychotherapy (sometimes called "talk therapy"). Both approaches can be effective for most disorders. The choice of one or the other, or both, depends on the patient's and the doctor's preference, and also on the particular anxiety disorder. For example, only psychotherapy has been found effective for specific phobias. When choosing a therapist, you should find out whether medications will be available if needed.
Before treatment can begin, the doctor must conduct a careful diagnostic evaluation to determine whether your symptoms are due to an anxiety disorder, which anxiety disorder(s) you may have, and what coexisting conditions may be present. Anxiety disorders are not all treated the same, and it is important to determine the specific problem before embarking on a course of treatment. Sometimes alcoholism or some other coexisting condition will have such an impact that it is necessary to treat it at the same time or before treating the anxiety disorder.
If you have been treated previously for an anxiety disorder, be prepared to tell the doctor what treatment you tried. If it was a medication, what was the dosage, was it gradually increased, and how long did you take it? If you had psychotherapy, what kind was it, and how often did you attend sessions? It often happens that people believe they have "failed" at treatment, or that the treatment has failed them, when in fact it was never given an adequate trial.
When you undergo treatment for an anxiety disorder, you and your doctor or therapist will be working together as a team. Together, you will attempt to find the approach that is best for you. If one treatment doesn't work, the odds are good that another one will. And new treatments are continually being developed through research. So don't give up hope.
Medications for Anxiety Disorders
Psychiatrists or other physicians can prescribe medications for anxiety disorders. These doctors often work closely with psychologists, social workers, or counselors who provide psychotherapy. Although medications won't cure an anxiety disorder, they can keep the symptoms under control and enable you to lead a normal, fulfilling life.
The major classes of medications used for various anxiety disorders are described on the next pages.
Antidepressants for Anxiety Disorders
A number of medications that were originally approved for treatment of depression have been found to be effective for anxiety disorders. If your doctor prescribes an antidepressant, you will need to take it for several weeks before symptoms start to fade. So it is important not to get discouraged and stop taking these medications before they've had a chance to work.
Some of the newest antidepressants are called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs. These medications act in the brain on a chemical messenger called serotonin. SSRIs tend to have fewer side effects than older antidepressants. People do sometimes report feeling slightly nauseated or jittery when they first start taking SSRIs, but that usually disappears with time. Some people also experience sexual dysfunction when taking some of these medications. An adjustment in dosage or a switch to another SSRI will usually correct bothersome problems. It is important to discuss side effects with your doctor so that he or she will know when there is a need for a change in medication.
Fluoxetine, sertraline, fluvoxamine, paroxetine, and citalopram are among the SSRIs commonly prescribed for panic disorder, OCD, PTSD, and social phobia. SSRIs are often used to treat people who have panic disorder in combination with OCD, social phobia, or depression. Venlafaxine, a drug closely related to the SSRIs, is useful for treating GAD. Other newer antidepressants are under study in anxiety disorders, although one, bupropion, does not appear effective for these conditions. These medications are started at a low dose and gradually increased until they reach a therapeutic level.
Similarly, antidepressant medications called tricyclics are started at low doses and gradually increased. Tricyclics have been around longer than SSRIs and have been more widely studied for treating anxiety disorders. For anxiety disorders other than OCD, they are as effective as the SSRIs, but many physicians and patients prefer the newer drugs because the tricyclics sometimes cause dizziness, drowsiness, dry mouth, and weight gain. When these problems persist or are bothersome, a change in dosage or a switch in medications may be needed.
Tricyclics are useful in treating people with co-occurring anxiety disorders and depression. Clomipramine, the only antidepressant in its class prescribed for OCD, and imipramine, prescribed for panic disorder and GAD, are examples of tricyclics.
Monoamine oxidase inhibitors, or MAOIs, are the oldest class of antidepressant medications. The most commonly prescribed MAOI is phenelzine, which is helpful for people with panic disorder and social phobia. Tranylcypromine and isoprocarboxazid are also used to treat anxiety disorders. People who take MAOIs are put on a restrictive diet because these medications can interact with some foods and beverages, including cheese and red wine, which contain a chemical called tyramine. MAOIs also interact with some other medications, including SSRIs. Interactions between MAOIs and other substances can cause dangerous elevations in blood pressure or other potentially life-threatening reactions.
High-potency benzodiazepines relieve symptoms quickly and have few side effects, although drowsiness can be a problem. Because people can develop a tolerance to them — and would have to continue increasing the dosage to get the same effect-benzodiazepines are generally prescribed for short periods of time. One exception is panic disorder, for which they may be used for 6 months to a year. People who have had problems with drug or alcohol abuse are not usually good candidates for these medications because they may become dependent on them.
Some people experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking benzodiazepines, although reducing the dosage gradually can diminish those symptoms. In certain instances, the symptoms of anxiety can rebound after these medications are stopped. Potential problems with benzodiazepines have led some physicians to shy away from using them, or to use them in inadequate doses, even when they are of potential benefit to the patient. Benzodiazepines include clonazepam, which is used for social phobia and GAD; alprazolam, which is helpful for panic disorder and GAD; and lorazepam, which is also useful for panic disorder.
Buspirone, a member of a class of drugs called azipirones, is a newer anti-anxiety medication that is used to treat GAD. Possible side effects include dizziness, headaches, and nausea. Unlike the benzodiazepines, buspirone must be taken consistently for at least two weeks to achieve an anti-anxiety effect.
Other Anxiety Medications
Beta-blockers, such as propanolol, are often used to treat heart conditions but have also been found to be helpful in certain anxiety disorders, particularly in social phobia. When a feared situation, such as giving an oral presentation, can be predicted in advance, your doctor may prescribe a beta-blocker that can be taken to keep your heart from pounding, your hands from shaking, and other physical symptoms from developing.
Taking Medications for Anxiety Disorders
Before taking medication for an anxiety disorder:
- Ask your doctor to tell you about the effects and side effects of the drug he or she is prescribing.
- Tell your doctor about any alternative therapies or over-the-counter medications you are using.
- Ask your doctor when and how the medication will be stopped. Some drugs can't safely be stopped abruptly; they have to be tapered slowly under a physician's supervision.
- Be aware that some medications are effective in anxiety disorders only as long as they are taken regularly, and symptoms may occur again when the medications are discontinued.
- Work together with your doctor to determine the right dosage of the right medication to treat your anxiety disorder.
Therapies for Anxiety Disorders
Psychotherapy involves talking with a trained mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or counselor to learn how to deal with problems like anxiety disorders.
Cognitive-Behavioral and Behavioral Therapy
Research has shown that a form of psychotherapy that is effective for several anxiety disorders, particularly panic disorder and social phobia, is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). It has two components. The cognitive component helps people change thinking patterns that keep them from overcoming their fears. For example, a person with panic disorder might be helped to see that his or her panic attacks are not really heart attacks as previously feared; the tendency to put the worst possible interpretation on physical symptoms can be overcome. Similarly, a person with social phobia might be helped to overcome the belief that others are continually watching and harshly judging him or her.
The behavioral component of CBT seeks to change people's reactions to anxiety-provoking situations. A key element of this component is exposure, in which people confront the things they fear. An example would be a treatment approach called exposure and response prevention for people with OCD. If the person has a fear of dirt and germs, the therapist may encourage them to dirty their hands, then go a certain period of time without washing. The therapist helps the patient to cope with the resultant anxiety. Eventually, after this exercise has been repeated a number of times, anxiety will diminish. In another sort of exposure exercise, a person with social phobia may be encouraged to spend time in feared social situations without giving in to the temptation to flee. In some cases the individual with social phobia will be asked to deliberately make what appear to be slight social blunders and observe other people's reactions; if they are not as harsh as expected, the person's social anxiety may begin to fade. For a person with PTSD, exposure might consist of recalling the traumatic event in detail, as if in slow motion, and in effect re-experiencing it in a safe situation. If this is done carefully, with support from the therapist, it may be possible to defuse the anxiety associated with the memories. Another behavioral technique is to teach the patient deep breathing as an aid to relaxation and anxiety management.
Behavioral therapy alone, without a strong cognitive component, has long been used effectively to treat specific phobias. Here also, therapy involves exposure. The person is gradually exposed to the object or situation that is feared. At first, the exposure may be only through pictures or audiotapes. Later, if possible, the person actually confronts the feared object or situation. Often the therapist will accompany him or her to provide support and guidance.
If you undergo CBT or behavioral therapy, exposure will be carried out only when you are ready; it will be done gradually and only with your permission. You will work with the therapist to determine how much you can handle and at what pace you can proceed.
A major aim of CBT and behavioral therapy is to reduce anxiety by eliminating beliefs or behaviors that help to maintain the anxiety disorder. For example, avoidance of a feared object or situation prevents a person from learning that it is harmless. Similarly, performance of compulsive rituals in OCD gives some relief from anxiety and prevents the person from testing rational thoughts about danger, contamination, etc.
To be effective, CBT or behavioral therapy must be directed at the person's specific anxieties. An approach that is effective for a person with a specific phobia about dogs is not going to help a person with OCD who has intrusive thoughts of harming loved ones. Even for a single disorder, such as OCD, it is necessary to tailor the therapy to the person's particular concerns. CBT and behavioral therapy have no adverse side effects other than the temporary discomfort of increased anxiety, but the therapist must be well trained in the techniques of the treatment in order for it to work as desired. During treatment, the therapist probably will assign "homework" — specific problems that the patient will need to work on between sessions.
CBT or behavioral therapy generally lasts about 12 weeks. It may be conducted in a group, provided the people in the group have sufficiently similar problems. Group therapy is particularly effective for people with social phobia. There is some evidence that, after treatment is terminated, the beneficial effects of CBT last longer than those of medications for people with panic disorder; the same may be true for OCD, PTSD, and social phobia.
Medication may be combined with psychotherapy, and for many people this is the best approach to treatment. As stated earlier, it is important to give any treatment a fair trial. And if one approach doesn't work, the odds are that another one will, so don't give up.
If you have recovered from an anxiety disorder, and at a later date it recurs, don't consider yourself a "treatment failure." Recurrences can be treated effectively, just like an initial episode. In fact, the skills you learned in dealing with the initial episode can be helpful in coping with a setback.
Anxiety Disorders and Coexisting Conditions
It is common for an anxiety disorder to be accompanied by another anxiety disorder or another illness. Often people who have panic disorder or social phobia, for example, also experience the intense sadness and hopelessness associated with depression. Other conditions that a person can have along with an anxiety disorder include an eating disorder or alcohol or drug abuse. Any of these problems will need to be treated as well, ideally at the same time as the anxiety disorder.