I don’t want to make you feel unimportant in addition to your anxiety, but you are suffering from the most common mental illness in this country. Forty million other Americans, 18 percent of the population, wake up each morning to face some of the same symptoms that are making your life difficult – fear, stomach pain and muscle aches, headaches, trembling hands, fatigue or restlessness, dizziness, burning skin, confusion, dry mouth, hopelessness, emotional extremes, and on and on.
Maybe the best thing about joining such a large tribe is that a lot of attention is paid to treating the condition. The complication is that anxiety takes several miserable forms and you and your doctor may have to try more than one treatment plan to get yours under control. Treatment can get more complicated if, as is often the case, your anxiety is tied to other disorders like substance abuse, depression, or a physical problem.
Sadly, only about a third of people with anxiety receive treatment for their anxiety, although many seek medical care for physical ills since anxiety symptoms mimic other illnesses.
The primary treatments for anxiety are therapy and medication.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy is most commonly used to treat anxiety. CBT involves a client and a therapist working together to identify damaging thoughts and behavior and create healthier messages for the client to substitute for the damaging ones. You’ll be asked to take responsibility for your recovery, research anxiety in general and your own experiences specifically, and practice what you’re learning between therapy sessions. If your anxiety has a specific trigger you may be exposed to that trigger gradually, and with the therapist standing by to talk you through it, until it loses potency. The therapy provides skills for life and has fairly quick results.
- Mindfulness therapy is also effective with anxiety and depression. Since many of the unpleasant symptoms involve trying to escape your anxiety, you will learn to remain in the experience, to relax, and step back to observe what’s going on. The idea is not to muscle up to confront your issues but to accept and learn from them.
- EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) therapy may seem odd but has proven successful in some cases of anxiety. The premise that by moving your eyes rapidly, mimicking the rapid eye movement that occurs during our dreams, can cue your brain to manage an upsetting experience in a new, more benign, way.
- Interpersonal psychotherapy depends on your relationship with a sympathetic therapist to explore the current effects of the past experiences that gave birth to your anxiety and depression. You won’t be asked to mine the past, but to deal practically with the current outcomes and to learn skills to help you behave in focused ways that will help you overcome your problems. For instance, if you have issues with a family member based on your shared past, you will work on improving that relationship today.
Medication for Anxiety
There are a variety of medications that have proven effective in treating anxiety and depression. Not all work for all people, so you may need to try more than one, if your doctor believes it would be helpful. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors block reabsorption of mood-lifting hormones by certain cells, leaving more available to do their job. Benzodiazepines promote relaxation. All medications have side effects; you and your doctor will need to balance their effectiveness with the potential for mischief.
Alternative Treatment for Anxiety
There are many things you can do for yourself to supplement or possibly avoid other treatment:
- Relaxation practices like yoga, deep breathing and meditation
- Acupuncture or acupressure
- Herbals (check with your doctor to make sure there’s no dangerous reactions with prescription drugs)
- Eating a diet high in omega-3 (oily fish, walnuts, flax-seeds), tryptophan (milk and cheese, poultry, bananas, sesame seeds, soy products, nuts), B vitamins (almonds, beans, leafy greens, seaweed and kelp, whole grains)