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I. What's it like to get therapy for anxiety?

People who have anxiety disorders experience distress that’s so acute or exaggerated they worry all the time, even when there’s no obvious cause for concern. You may want to consider therapy if you’re having trouble managing your anxiety on your own.

Therapy can help you with any anxiety, but it’s particularly important if you have an anxiety disorder. This disorder is characterized by a significant level of distress that shows no sign of improvement and affects how you function on a daily basis. Signs of anxiety disorder include:

  • Anxious thoughts, worries and beliefs that are difficult to control and get worse over time
  • Physical symptoms such as heart palpitations, sweating, shortness of breath and panic attacks
  • A change in your routine or behavior to avoid anxiety, such as withdrawal from social activities

Therapy for anxiety involves working with a mental health professional to change the thought patterns causing your anxiety. You learn strategies to reshape your thinking so your anxiety doesn’t interfere with your job, school, and social life.

The most common treatment for anxiety is psychotherapy, which can include therapeutic approaches such as cognitive behavioral, exposure, and acceptance and commitment therapies. Therapy is usually done one-on-one with a health care professional, although group therapy may be appropriate in some cases. Prescription medications may be prescribed. While anxiety therapy usually leads to the best outcomes, self-care such as exercise and meditation can help reduce stress outside of therapy sessions.

II. How to find an anxiety therapist

Therapy is most successful when it’s collaborative, so take time to find a therapist who you trust and is qualified to help meet your therapy goals. You may want to speak with several anxiety therapists near you to find one who’s the best fit for your needs.

Therapy involves discussing your fears and worries, so you need to feel safe opening up about these subjects including how your anxiety affects your day to day life. This may mean finding a therapist with whom you have a rapport. If you feel more at ease with a therapist of a similar age, gender, sexuality, or faith, you can take this into consideration. However, these factors don’t affect a therapist’s skills or experience, so you may not want to rule someone out for these reasons.

When looking for a mental health professional to help with anxiety therapy, ask about their training, credentials, and licensing. You should check how long they’ve been practicing, and the type of experience they’ve had. Some may specialize in certain anxiety disorders. It’s important to know if they can prescribe medications in addition to providing therapy services. This is only something that a licensed psychiatrist can provide who holds a medical degree. If your therapist does not have a medical degree, they can make recommendations to explore the potential for medication with your primary care doctor or a psychiatrist.

Finally, be sure to get a sense of the treatment plan recommended by an anxiety therapist ahead of time, including frequency and duration of sessions, and cost. If the therapist doesn’t accept your insurance plan, ask if they offer a payment plan option or a sliding scale fee schedule. You’ll want to ensure that the cost of therapy fits in your budget.

III. What does an anxiety therapist help with?

Anxiety can be a normal reaction to stress, but when it’s severe and persistent, it interferes with daily life. Patients often seek help from therapists for managing anxiety disorders such as:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder: People with generalized anxiety disorder have excessive, chronic worry even when there’s no apparent reason for concern.
  • Panic disorder: This disorder is characterized by sudden, intense fear that results in panic attacks. It can cause shortness of breath, heart palpitations, and chest pain.
  • Social anxiety disorder: People with social anxiety disorder fear being criticized, judged, or embarrassed in front of others. Symptoms include nausea, sweating, rapid heart rate, and anxiety attacks. It can also result in individuals avoiding other people and self isolating.
  • Post-traumatic stress: This anxiety disorder can occur after experiencing a frightening, life-threatening event. It can cause nightmares, flashbacks, and depression.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder: People with OCD experience unwanted, disturbing, or frightening thoughts. They perform repetitive behaviors to try to control their anxiety.
  • Specific phobias: Some anxiety disorders are triggered by a specific fear, such as a fear of heights, spiders, storms, flying, or small spaces.

IV. How can you prepare for therapy for anxiety?

To make the most of your first therapy session, take time to think about your situation so you can give your anxiety therapist as much information as possible to develop a treatment plan. Make notes so that you won’t forget details to bring up in your session. Here are some key points to consider:

  • What thoughts or worries do you have?
  • Are you experiencing physical symptoms when you’re anxious, such as a rapid heartbeat or trembling?
  • When did you first notice your anxiety?
  • Has it gotten worse over time?
  • Are there specific situations or events that cause your anxiety?
  • How long does the anxious episode last?
  • Does anything make it better?
  • How does it affect school, work, social life and relationships?
  • What would you like to accomplish in therapy?
  • What would your life look like without anxiety?

Include any questions you have about how therapy works and your therapist’s approach.

Perhaps the most important way to prepare yourself is to be open and honest. It may be uncomfortable, but the more forthright you are, the better your anxiety therapist can help.

V. What are anxiety therapy treatments?

The most common treatments for anxiety are psychotherapy — known as talk therapy — and medication. Here are different types of anxiety therapy treatments:

Cognitive behavioral therapy 
The most widely-used treatment for anxiety, CBT is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on the thought patterns that cause anxiety. It’s based on the theory that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all interconnected. Inaccurate thinking, such as jumping to conclusions, can lead to fear and anxiety. By understanding and challenging this distorted thinking, you can change how you think and feel.

Exposure therapy
Exposure therapy is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy most often used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder and specific phobias. Many people whose anxieties stem from fears tend to avoid situations that can make them worse. Exposure therapy aims to reduce fear by having you confront the frightening situation. Over time, you become less sensitive and fearful.

Acceptance and commitment therapy 
ACT focuses on changing how you relate to your thoughts and feelings through mindfulness and acceptance. You can then look at your anxiety differently and learn skills to change your behavior according to your values and how you want to live your life.

Medication can ease some of the symptoms of anxiety. It doesn’t resolve all symptoms, so it’s usually used in conjunction with psychotherapy. Your health care provider can recommend anxiety medications based on factors such as your medical history, health, possible side effects, and cost. You may need to try several different medications to find one that works best for you.

Commonly prescribed anxiety medications include antidepressants (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), benzodiazepines, tricyclic antidepressants, and beta blockers.

VI. What else can help?

While therapy and medication are the main forms of treatment for anxiety, self-care can help reduce your overall stress and enhance your well-being.

  • Physical activity such exercise, yoga, and tai chi reduces the level of stress hormones in the body and increase endorphins that helps lift mood
  • Meditation can boost calmness and relieve feelings of anxiety, depression, and insomnia
  • Mindfulness is a type of meditation that can help you bring thoughts into the present, instead of worrying about the past and future
  • Mental health apps can be downloaded onto your smartphone to remind you to check on your thinking and relax throughout the day.

VII. Sources

For additional information about anxiety therapy, check out the sources we used in this guide.