Learn / Finding Calm: Options for Anxiety Treatment
Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress and can be a useful response in certain situations. It alerts us to dangers and helps us prepare and pay attention. But anxiety disorders are more than normal feelings of nervousness or anxiousness—they involve excessive fear or anxiousness which can negatively impact everyday life.
If you often feel anxious, whether or not you’ve been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, the steps to seeking help can seem overwhelming. For some, rehab for anxiety is a good place to start.
Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental disorder1 and affect over 30% of adults at some point in their lives. Different risk factors can make it more likely for someone to develop an anxiety disorder. These include stressful life events, a family history of anxiety and other mental health issues, a history of trauma, and certain medical conditions.
In order to begin healing, it’s important to understand your personal experience with anxiety. Finding a rehab program that specializes in treating anxiety disorders may be a step in that process.
As humans, our bodies have evolved to protect us in moments of danger. As such, our nervous system is continually scanning for threats as a way to keep us safe. When our body detects that there’s some kind of threat (whether it’s an oncoming car or just a loud noise), it reacts in a way that is likely to keep us safe. As the threat passes, our bodies regulate and return to a calmer state.
Chronic anxiety happens when a person’s body isn’t able to complete the cycle and return to a regular state. Instead, it stays at alert when it doesn’t need to. Anxiety is an adaptive response that helps keep us alive in dangerous situations. But staying in this elevated state can be distressing and bad for our physical health.
If you suffer from anxiety, it can be difficult to find a sense of calm even when you know you’re safe.
In the first stage of treatment, a mental health specialist will take you through an assessment process to see if you meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder.2 Results of the assessment will guide your treatment recommendations. Common types of anxiety disorders and their symptoms are listed below:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
The most common diagnosis is generalized anxiety disorder. To receive this diagnosis, a person needs to show persistent and excessive worry that interferes with daily activities.
Panic disorder involves experiencing panic attacks in response to a feared object or at unexpected times. Symptoms include rapid heart rate, sweating, shaking, feeling short of breath, chest pain, dizziness, numbness or tingling, chills or hot flashes, nausea, and fear of losing control or dying.
A phobia is an excessive and persistent fear of a specific object, situation, or activity that’s generally not harmful. Examples are a fear of public speaking, fear of flying, or fear of spiders. A person with a phobia may avoid certain situations, or experience extreme distress when facing their fear.
A person with agoraphobia fears situations where escape may be difficult or embarrassing. They experience fear in at least two of these circumstances: using public transportation, being in open spaces, being in enclosed spaces, standing in line or being in a crowd, or being outside the home alone.
Social Anxiety Disorder
Social anxiety disorder involves significant anxiety and discomfort about being embarrassed, humiliated, or looked down on in social interactions. Two examples are extreme fear of public speaking, and eating or drinking in public.
Separation Anxiety Disorder
Separation anxiety disorder is when a patient is excessively fearful or anxious about separation from people they’re close to. The feeling is beyond what’s appropriate for the person’s age, lasts over time, and causes problems functioning.
Selective mutism is diagnosed in cases where a person is unable to speak in certain social situations, such as with classmates at school or to relatives they don’t see very often.
People struggle with anxiety due to a combination of genetic, environmental, psychological, and other factors. Because we know that anxiety disorders can run in families, it’s likely that a combination of genes and environmental stresses lead to anxiety disorders.2
Research shows that anxiety and sensory sensitivity are related. People who are more sensitive to sensory input may have higher levels of anxiety than others. Each of us has our own breaking point of when our nervous system becomes overstimulated. When surroundings are too bright, too loud, or too intense in other ways, everyday environments can get overwhelming.
Anxiety symptoms can develop in childhood or later in life, and it’s common for patients to have other mental health or medical diagnoses along with an anxiety disorder. It’s important to keep in mind that anxiety might look different across people and cultures.
Everyone’s experience is different, but there are some common comorbidities of anxiety disorders:
Anxiety can also take the form of physical symptoms.4 These include fibromyalgia, nausea, heartburn, impaired motor activity, and impaired vision. Even when there’s not a medical diagnosis to explain these physical symptoms, they’re still important to notice. They may signal that your body is experiencing chronic anxiety.
Anxiety often happens internally but it may also have a serious impact on your life.
Anxiety takes a toll on the body. Because they have high levels of cortisol and other stress hormones, people who are chronically anxious may have problems with heart disease,5 high blood pressure, and immune system deficiencies.
People with chronic anxiety sometimes experience chronic inflammation, like gut inflammation. Chronic anxiety can also shorten life expectancy.
Public stigma toward people with anxiety disorders6 and other mental health diagnoses can take a toll on a person, and lead to self-stigma. These negative attitudes are often based on the misconception that anxiety happens because of personal weakness, instead of it being a legitimate condition that calls for support.
Even if you don’t fit the criteria for an anxiety diagnosis, its symptoms can get in the way of leading the life you want. Anxiety can negatively impact quality of life,7 including work, social relationships, home, and family.
Anxiety may be very distressing at times. As a result, you may begin to avoid situations that trigger anxiety.8 In some cases, this might be a useful response, but in others, it means missing out on the important events and relationships that make living worthwhile.
When your diagnosis impacts the rest of your life, it might be hard to imagine a way to heal. Remember that you deserve care. And fortunately, there are treatments available.
People with anxiety are uniquely vulnerable to substance misuse. For many, using a substance can temporarily lower their anxiety levels. But, anxiety is also a side effect of substance use. You may feel anxious when you stop using alcohol, anti-anxiety medications, or other substances, including caffeine.9
Dr. Rocco A. Iannucci, Psychiatrist and Director of Fernside at McLean Hospital, stresses the relationship between anxiety and substance misuse:
“We know from major studies in the community that as many as half of people who have an addiction also have another mental health issue, like depression or anxiety, and we also know that really the best practice is to address both problems at the same time. You could leave yourself in the situation of helping someone stop drinking, for example, and then they end up feeling terribly depressed if you don’t help them with that problem. That really leaves them vulnerable to a relapse.”
If you’re experiencing both anxiety symptoms and a substance use disorder (i.e. a co-occurring disorder), there are a number of rehab programs that may be right for you.
Two main goals of anxiety-focused interventions are: 1) to help your body regulate itself so that anxiety responses are less intense, and 2) to learn useful ways to acknowledge and move through anxiety when it shows up.
Many people use medication to manage anxiety.11 Some of the most frequently used options include anti-anxiety drugs (such as benzodiazepines), antidepressants (including SSRIs and SNRIs), and beta-blockers.
For some people, medication may be an effective way to lessen the impact of anxiety attacks and other symptoms of chronic anxiety. Making this change at the physical level might also mean that other kinds of interventions start to feel feasible.
One intervention for anxiety is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).12 With this approach, you’ll learn how your thoughts contribute to your anxiety struggles and how to change those thought patterns. You’ll also learn how to reduce anxious behaviors by experiencing different challenging situations. Most treatment programs for anxiety offer CBT. You can also get treatment at home through virtual therapy sessions.
In exposure therapy,13 a therapist creates a safe environment where you’re exposed to the things you fear and avoid. In sessions, you might be asked to interact directly with the feared situation. You also practice managing your anxiety while imagining the trigger, or interact with it using virtual reality. The goal is to decrease the intensity of anxious reactions and to show that you’re capable of navigating the situation.
Another therapy approach is dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).14 A DBT therapist supports you as you build skills for interpersonal effectiveness, tolerating distress, and regulating emotions. Sessions can be one-on-one or in small groups, with weekly homework assignments that help you apply what you’re learning to your everyday life.
Acceptance and commitment therapy14 (ACT) is an approach where the the focus is on changing the relationship you have with your anxiety so that you suffer less. By accepting that your feelings of anxiety when they come up, it becomes possible to find new and creative ways to navigate it and behave in ways that are in line with your values at the same time.
But physical activity doesn’t have to happen in a gym or on a yoga mat. Meaningful movement can look like gentle stretching, going for a walk or bike ride, or taking a short dance break in between other daily activities.
Mindfulness, meditation, or other kinds of breathing exercise are useful ways to regulate your nervous system, slow your heart rate, and connect to the present moment. But be sure to pay attention to whether it’s actually working for you. If an exercise is increasing feelings of panic and emotional distress, it may be more harmful than helpful. You could consider adjusting your mindfulness practice16 by taking more frequent breaks, spending a shorter amount of time on the exercise, or trying another type of exercise altogether.
Other activities are done with another person, like a therapist or loved one. For example, the Safe and Sound Protocol18 involves listening to music that’s been processed specifically to retune the nervous system. This creates a sense of safety and may make it easier to be social with others. Massage, hugs, and other types of physical closeness are other examples of co-regulation activities for lowering anxiety and creating a felt sense of safety and social connection.
When it comes to successfully navigating your anxiety, it’s important to focus on what you need in the moment and from your environment, rather than trying to change yourself in order to cope with overwhelm. Acknowledge your experience for what it is, and try to approach your anxiety with self-compassion.
Living with anxiety can be challenging; it can create distress and make it hard to participate in meaningful parts of life. But it’s an extremely common mental health struggle, and there is hope. There are lots of interventions and helpful resources for managing anxiety.
Just like you, your healing process will be unique. You can explore what kinds of supports feel like the best fit as you learn to move through anxiety as it comes up. Make sure to find a treatment program that meets your specific needs.
To learn more about treatment for this condition, browse our list of rehabs specializing in anxiety disorder treatment.
Reviewed by Rajnandini Rathod
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