Anxiety is the body’s natural response to stress, perceived threats, and fear. Anxiety usually goes away once the threat or stressor passes and your system calms down.
However, if you have an anxiety disorder, anxiety can linger beyond the triggering event and become out of proportion. Chronic (long-term) or severe anxiety can seriously impair your daily functioning.
While you can’t banish anxiety altogether, anxiety and anxiety disorders can be treated and managed.
We’ll go over what distinguishes anxiety disorders from standard anxiety, risk factors, treatment options, and more.
A person’s tendency toward anxiety is determined by several factors, including their genetic makeup, life experiences, environment, and more.
Since it’s a natural part of the human condition, anxiety is not completely curable. But feeling anxious should be a temporary state that resolves when a stressor or trigger has passed.
Anxiety is bound to make an appearance sometimes, such as when you’re giving a big presentation at work or when you have an acute health issue.
Anxiety disorders, on the other hand, are different from average feelings of anxiety. Anxiety disorders are marked by excessive, prolonged worrying. You might feel overwhelmed easily and be unable to stop feeling anxious.
If left untreated, anxiety disorders can worsen over time and negatively impact your quality of life.
This might look like:
- avoiding personal or professional obligations
- isolating yourself or not wanting to go out
- becoming depressed
- lower self-esteem
- having panic attacks
It’s important to recognize when anxiety has too much control over you and to seek help. There are ways to manage anxiety and keep it from running your life.
Anxiety is an emotional state that involves feelings of worry, apprehension, and stress. As the American Psychiatric Association explains, anxiety usually involves being concerned about something happening in the future. This could be a specific event or an abstract fear.
When you’re anxious, you can also have temporary physical symptoms, such as an increased heart rate and sweating.
Anxiety is also a state of high alert when there’s a perceived threat or possibility of a threat. It serves an evolutionary purpose to keep us alert to danger and looking out for our self-preservation.
If your anxiety starts acting up all the time, it can make small stresses and situations feel like life or death. This can negatively affect your quality of life and may indicate an anxiety disorder.
Types of anxiety disorders include:
- generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
- separation anxiety disorder
- social anxiety disorder (fear of going out, talking with people, socializing)
- panic disorder (recurrent panic attacks)
- phobias (fear of certain things or situations)
People with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder may also experience anxiety symptoms. These used to be classified as anxiety disorders but are now separate in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5). The DSM-5 is the major resource used by healthcare professionals to diagnose mental health conditions.
People with other types of mental health conditions, such as borderline personality disorder (BPD) and schizophrenia, may also experience anxiety more frequently than the average person.
Anxiety disorders or anxiety caused by other mental health conditions can cause significant problems in daily life. They can impact your relationships and performance at work or school.
- exposure to significant stressful and negative events
- family history of anxiety or other mental health conditions
- health conditions such as thyroid problems or heart arrhythmia
- having a highly sensitive personality
- a tendency to be shy
Did you know anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental health disorder?
The survey found:
- Over 19 percent of U.S. adults had experienced an anxiety disorder in the past year.
- Over 31 percent will experience an anxiety disorder at some point in their lives.
- Prevalence of anxiety disorders was higher in female people and people assigned female at birth.
Anxiety is treated by psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals.
Anxiety disorders sometimes coexist with other conditions (comorbidities), such as depression or substance use disorder. When seeking care for your anxiety, it’s important to also address any other mental health conditions.
The following are common treatment options for anxiety. Many of these have been around for a while and are associated with significant improvements in quality of life.
Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, involves one-on-one sessions with a therapist. You might meet with your therapist weekly, or more or less frequently, depending on your individual situation.
Talk therapy is an umbrella term. Common forms of talk therapy include:
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
- acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT)
- interpersonal therapy
- family or couples therapy
During talk therapy, you can speak openly about your anxieties and other concerns. Your therapist can help you identify problems and work on strategies to overcome them.
Therapy can be a safe, judgment-free space to share whatever is troubling you and be yourself. Your therapist can also provide you with resources about other mental health treatment options.
We’ll overview two kinds of talk therapy commonly used for treating anxiety disorders: CBT and DBT.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
CBT has been found to
Here’s how it works:
- CBT is based on the idea that thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are related. This form of therapy aims to help you change your thought and behavior patterns in a way that will be beneficial to you.
- Usually, you and your therapist will agree on a number of sessions to help organize your treatment plan and structure goals.
- CBT sessions will focus on specific problems and changing the way you think about and deal with them. You practice with your therapist and on your own in between sessions.
One common method of treating anxiety disorders is a type of CBT called exposure therapy. This involves identifying the things that cause anxiety and then, in a safe and controlled setting, systematically exposing yourself to them. This could be virtual or in real life.
Exposure therapy may also involve learning relaxation techniques, a form of exposure therapy called systematic desensitization.
As you’re exposed to a stressful or feared situation in a safe setting, you begin to feel less anxious about it. This helps you manage a situation better next time it happens so anxiety is no longer running the show.
Dialectical behavior therapy
DBT is an increasingly popular therapy for people with certain mental health conditions that can cause anxiety.
Similar to CBT, the focus of DBT is behavioral change. However, DBT provides additional focus on the development of coping skills and thinking patterns that can help regulate mood, emotions, and relationships. The idea is to tap into these coping skills when you feel anxious or in other distress.
DBT programs are intensive and require a mix of one-on-one and group therapy sessions that meet weekly for several months.
For these reasons, DBT may be most helpful for those whose anxiety is severe and caused by serious mental health conditions such as borderline personality disorder (BPD), eating disorders, and substance use disorders.
Getting the help you deserve
Making the decision to start therapy can be difficult and confusing. There’s still stigma attached to talking about mental health, and it can be hard to learn how to navigate the system and find care.
You deserve care and support!
Here are some resources to help answer questions and offer guidance:
When talk therapy or behavioral therapy is not enough to manage your anxiety, your doctor may talk with you about the possibility of taking anti-anxiety medications. Sometimes this category of medications is called anxiolytics.
Anti-anxiety medications can also be prescribed by a psychiatrist.
Common types include:
- serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)
- selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
- tricyclic antidepressants
When prescribed for anxiety, medications are typically combined with some type of talk therapy.
Benzodiazepines are typically prescribed to be taken as needed. These medications are fast-acting, and have risk of addiction. Antidepressants, including both SNRIs and SSRIs, are for daily or chronic use, and can take time to achieve a therapeutic effect. Tricyclics are also used to treat OCD.
Anxiety medications can have side effects and should always be taken as directed by your doctor. It may take more than one try to find the right medication for you.
Even if you’ve learned how to manage anxiety, it’s a safe bet that you’ll experience some level of anxiety again in your lifetime.
Anxiety may crop up in response to events such as:
- financial issues
- work stress, including in a new job
- trouble with interpersonal relationships
- fear of being alone
- dealing with serious health issues
- loss of a loved one
- major life changes, such as marriage or a move
Your anxiety level is likely to fluctuate throughout your life, depending on what’s happening or what’s on your mind.
Remember — anxiety is not inherently bad. It can help us be prepared for whatever comes our way. But when you’re feeling anxious all the time and feel unable to calm down, this is a cause for concern.
Chronic anxiety that is out of proportion to the stressor or situation may signify an anxiety disorder.
When you feel anxious, it may help to acknowledge the fact that you’re anxious. If you can, try and take a step back and consider the situation. Identifying who or what is making you anxious can be a useful coping tool.
During times of stress and alarm, it can help to remember that your feelings of anxiety should pass once the stressful event is over.
Here are a few things you can do to help lower your anxiety in the moment:
- Reach out to someone you trust for support. Sometimes, talking things through can help you gain calm and relieve anxious thoughts.
- Set boundaries. Try to practice saying no to work or personal requests if you have too much on your plate.
- Practice activities that might help calm or center you:
- deep breathing
- going for a walk
- your favorite kind of exercise
- Do something that helps you relax physically:
- soaking in a warm bath
- playing soothing music
- enjoying aromatherapy
- watching your favorite TV show or movie
- If you practice CBT or DBT, try tapping into some of your distress coping tools, and try to mindfully redirect your behavior or attention.
Here’s an introductory overview of some things you can do to help reduce anxiety in the long term.
Get regular exercise
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends
A 2019 study found that this amount of exercise can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Practice mindfulness and meditation
Being mindful means stepping back, tuning out the unimportant, and paying attention to what’s happening in the moment. Mindfulness involves tuning into your surroundings and what’s going on inside you.
Meditation is the practice of training your mind to redirect your thoughts and channel your focus and awareness.
There are many types of meditation, and all of them require some practice. Many resources are readily available to help you get started.
Consider downloading a meditation app or taking a meditation class to help you learn. The techniques you learn in meditation can come in handy when coping with a stressful situation.
Practicing meditation is associated with multiple health benefits, including improved sleep and lower stress.
Get plenty of sleep
Getting enough restful sleep is essential to your overall health and well-being. For adults, 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night is ideal.
- In children, hyperactivity can occur.
- In adults, feeling cranky, exhausted, and moody is common.
- Both children and adults may experience trouble focusing.
Some people have insomnia and are chronically under-sleeping, or have health conditions that affect sleep.
Here are some tips and resources for prioritizing a good night’s sleep:
- Tools and Tricks to Calm Your Anxiety and (Finally) Get Some Sleep
- 10 Reasons to Get More Sleep
- 10 Healthy Sleep Hygiene Habits
A varied and nutritious diet is one of the most important things you can do for your physical and mental health. This includes avoiding foods you are allergic or sensitive to, which cause inflammation in your body.
Always reach out to a dietitian, nutritionist, or your primary care doctor before making substantial dietary changes.
Try to consume the following in moderation:
The MyPlate resource from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) can help you assess your current diet and identify which foods to include.
Certain foods have been associated with helping reduce anxiety and other mental health issues. These foods include:
Stay socially engaged and get support
Prioritize maintaining a strong social network. This could look like a small group of close, trusted friends or a wider net. Social interactions can distract you from your own stressors and give you someone to turn to when you need to talk.
Spending time with friends and family who you feel safe and comfortable around can help limit social anxiety. It can also provide a safe space to share feelings and stresses to prevent them from building up inside you.
You might also find it helpful to connect with others who are dealing with anxiety. You’re not limited to in-person connection, either. You can reach out online, on the phone, or through video chat.
Resources for anxiety
If you’re dealing with anxiety, you’re not alone. These organizations offer resources that can help:
There are many ways to treat anxiety that exist outside traditional medicine. These may not work for everyone, and not all of them are backed with research. However, it can be empowering to explore your options, and you might just discover a new approach that helps.
Use of acupuncture to help anxiety is growing in popularity. Acupuncture is an ancient Chinese therapy
During an acupuncture session, a practitioner will insert tiny, thin needles into pressure points on your body. Putting pressure on these points is thought to balance the body’s systems, reducing pain and stress.
Massage is the practice of using hands, pressure, and touch to ease pain and stress in the body. There are many types of massage, and often a license is required to operate as a masseuse.
Popular types of massage are:
- Swedish massage
- shiatsu massage
- sports massage
- trigger point therapy
2014 research on patients who have undergone heart surgery suggests massage is an effective way to significantly reduce health-related anxiety.
Animal-assisted (pet) therapy is a type of therapy that incorporates the human-animal bond into a person’s mental health treatment plan. Increasingly, animal-assisted therapy is offered by mental health practitioners.
Common therapy animals include:
During animal-assisted therapy, you may be paired up with a dog, cat, horse, pig, or other animal. You may interact with this animal during therapy sessions, or you may receive a recommendation for a service animal, such as one used for emotional or medical support.
Researchers have found
- feeling less alone
- feeling more comfortable in social situations
- higher self-esteem
- lower overall feelings of anxiety
Getting enough sunlight, which contains vitamin D, is important to your overall health.
- type 1 diabetes
- hypertension (high blood pressure)
- certain types of cancer
- Alzheimer‘s disease
Prioritizing getting enough sunlight can boost your mood and energy, which can reduce anxious feelings. When getting sunlight, be sure to wear adequate sun protection, including sunscreen and sunglasses.
Artificial light therapies are increasingly common and have been associated with numerous health benefits. However, some still remain controversial, and not all experts agree they work.
Light therapy may involve different colored beams (often red or blue) and is organized into timed sessions.
Various light therapies target:
A 2018 study of 58 epilepsy patients found daily light therapy was useful for reducing their anxiety and depression.
For many people, music therapy may be a helpful way to alleviate or prevent feelings of anxiety. Throughout human history, music has been used to soothe, energize, and inspire.
Music therapists are experts in teaching people how to use music to benefit their mental health.
Music therapy can look like:
- listening to music on your own
- working with a music therapist in individual sessions toward specific goals
- learning a new instrument, playing or composing music
Listening to music has been shown to have several benefits for your health, including:
- lowering heart rate
- helping with sleep
- pain relief
- reducing anxiety
- lowering cortisol levels
- improving mental health
Though the following natural remedies have been linked to diminished anxiety in some studies, more research is needed to prove a definitive helpful connection. However, many home remedies for anxiety and mood disorders have long been popular and have a lot of anecdotal support.
It’s important to consult a doctor before starting any of the following natural remedies, especially if you have preexisting health conditions or are on medication. Natural remedies for anxiety include:
- CBD (comes in various forms)
- chamomile (including tea and oil)
- valerian root
- lemon balm
Everyone experiences anxiety at one time or another. Anxiety usually goes away once the triggering event is over, but it may reoccur depending on your life circumstances.
An anxiety disorder can become a long-term condition. If left untreated, anxiety disorders can worsen and substantially disrupt your life. Anxiety has been linked to an increased incidence of depression and substance use disorders, among other health complications.
While you may not be able to banish anxiety forever from your life, anxiety disorders can be treated and managed with traditional and alternative therapies.
- behavioral therapies
- talk therapy
- lifestyle changes
Not all treatment options will work for everyone, and you may have to explore a few to find one that’s right for you.
You don’t have to deal with anxiety alone. If your anxiety feels overwhelming or unmanageable, reach out to a healthcare or mental health professional for help. You don’t have to handle anxiety on your own, and you deserve care and support.