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.