Anxiety is a universal human experience: We've all felt “butterflies” in our stomachs before an important presentation or experienced a restless night fueled by racing thoughts and feelings of worry. These are normal reactions to life's challenges, and they usually ebb and flow over time.
But what happens when anxiety takes center stage and begins to affect our daily lives, relationships, and overall well-being?
In this blog, we’ll cover the common types of anxiety disorders, as well as walk through how various therapeutic approaches offer a lifeline to those struggling with them. From Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) and beyond, therapy — with the right therapist — can offer effective tools for managing and even conquering anxiety.
What is an anxiety disorder, and how common are they?
The term “anxiety” is a commonly used phrase to describe feeling worried and apprehensive about something, usually about a specific event or situation in one’s life. Often, people who technically do not have an anxiety disorder use the word “anxiety” to describe normal, healthy feelings of jitters.
But anxiety disorders, unlike experiencing occasional anxiety in response to stressful situations, are a diagnosable and treatable group of mental health issues — mental health conditions that cause a person to feel excessive and constant worries or fears about one or several different things in life. Those who suffer from anxiety disorders often feel on high alert, which disturbs and hinders daily life, both physically and emotionally. For the over 40 million adults in the U.S. who struggle with an anxiety disorder, the experience can be quite painful and exhausting.
Anxiety symptoms are also commonly experienced with other mental health conditions like obsessive compulsive disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder.
What are the different kinds of anxiety disorders?
Much like other areas of mental health, anxiety disorders can show up in a few different ways. The most common types of anxiety include:
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized Anxiety Disorder is a type of anxiety disorder that can be defined by excessive and chronic feelings of worry, restlessness, irritability, feeling on edge, and emotional and physical tension. These symptoms can impact a person’s sleep and ability to concentrate.
Social anxiety disorder involves an intense fear and anxiety of social situations, meeting new people, being observed or judged by others, or humiliating oneself. Those who suffer from this condition often may avoid social situations entirely or endure them with significant distress.
Those who suffer from panic disorders have recurrent and chronic experiences of panic attacks, which involve a spike of fear and overwhelm as well as physical anxiety symptoms like heart palpitations, difficulty breathing, chest pain, and nausea.
Agoraphobia can be defined by significantly heightened anxiety in response to being out of the home and in public spaces like movie theaters, public transportation, and any open space. Those diagnosed with this type of anxiety disorder may avoid triggering situations or endure them with heightened distress.
Illness Anxiety Disorder
Those who suffer from Illness Anxiety Disorder can often experience chronic concern of having an illness or contracting one, which is accompanied by generalized health anxiety that can include frequently examining yourself for signs of illness. This can occur regardless of whether there is a diagnosed illness present or not.
Specific phobias refer to an intense fear in response to a specific trigger that leads to either avoiding the trigger or enduring it with prolonged distress. Specific Phobia can cause heightened anxiety simply by thinking of or speaking about the trigger.
Substance/Medication-Induced Anxiety Disorder
Substance/Medication-Induced Anxiety Disorder is an anxiety disorder that is triggered by a substance or medication that is known to cause anxiety or panic-related symptoms. Anxiety or panic can occur during or after ingestion of medication or substances, and symptoms are unrelated to a pre-existing anxiety diagnosis.
What causes anxiety?
Unfortunately, there isn’t always one clear root cause of an anxiety disorder — in fact, an anxiety disorder can result from several different factors.
Brain chemistry: Chemical messengers called neurotransmitters (like serotonin and dopamine) help regulate your mood. When they're not balanced, it can lead to anxiety.
Traumatic experiences: Going through traumatic events, like accidents or violence, can trigger anxiety, especially if they're not processed and resolved. The anxiety often stems from the mind replaying the experiences over and over again.
Substance abuse: Using drugs or alcohol can alter one’s brain chemistry and trigger anxiety.
Major life transitions: Big life changes or stressful life events, whether positive (like getting married or having a baby) or negative (like losing a job or a loved one), can trigger anxiety.
Genetics: Sometimes, anxiety can run in families. If your parents or close relatives have struggled with anxiety disorders, you might be more prone to them too. But it’s important to remember that even if your anxiety is genetic, that doesn’t mean you can’t overcome it.
Learning: While all of the above can contribute to anxiety, research shows that a lot of people can also develop anxiety disorders by learning from their environment — in fact, your genetics and your environment interact with each other. For example, your genes may make you more likely to view some situations as scary, and you learn to avoid those situations to feel less anxious — eventually, you’re avoiding more and more just to feel okay. Anxiety can happen to anyone, and just as it’s possible for someone to learn it, they can also unlearn it.
What is the best treatment for anxiety?
While there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to treating people with anxiety disorders, therapy with a mental health professional is a common treatment for anxiety and can often be one of the most helpful methods for managing symptoms and, ultimately, feeling better.
Therapy for anxiety disorders can give people expert and personalized guidance to help them understand underlying causes, change thought patterns, learn new coping skills, and feel empowered to navigate their mental health issues.
What does therapy for anxiety look like?
Every person is different, so the recommended therapy treatment for their anxiety disorder will be different, too. However, there are a few common types of therapy for anxiety, including:
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a type of short-term effective treatment based on the idea that one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are interconnected, and by altering our thought patterns and behaviors, we can improve our emotional well-being.
Exposure Therapy: This type of therapy involves gradually facing feared situations or objects in a controlled and safe way, helping individuals face their fears and reduce anxiety.
Dialectical Behavior Therapy: Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) combines CBT techniques with mindfulness strategies, helping individuals regulate emotions and improve relationships.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy: Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is another cognitive behavioral technique that employs mindfulness to help clients see and understand their negative thoughts, allowing them to alter how they react to those thoughts.
Psychodynamic Therapy: Psychoanalysis has been used for years, and is what most people think of when they hear the term “talk therapy.” It’s still a very common form of therapy and can be very useful for bringing unconscious problems to the surface to be dissected and resolved.
What to expect in therapy for anxiety
Beginning therapy can be intimidating — especially for those just starting their healing journey. Understanding what to expect when working with a provider is a great way to prepare yourself and assuage any pre-session jitters.
Every therapist and therapy session can be different — whether it's online therapy or in-person — and should be tailored to you. However, there are some common elements in therapy for anxiety for you to consider. They include:
Client-therapist fit: Before jumping into a session, it’s essential to find the right therapist match in order to ensure a strong therapeutic relationship. With the right match, you’ll feel confident working with your therapist in a collaborative and supportive partnership in a safe and non-judgmental space.
Initial assessment: This assessment involves gathering information about your background, medical history, current symptoms, and specific concerns related to anxiety.
Goal setting: You and your therapist will work together to establish clear and achievable treatment goals. These goals will guide the direction of your therapy and help measure progress over time.
Exploration of anxiety triggers: You'll discuss your anxiety triggers to help understand and manage your anxiety effectively.
Skill development: Therapy often involves learning specific coping skills and strategies to manage anxiety. Your therapist will teach you techniques for challenging negative thought patterns, regulating your emotions, and facing anxiety-provoking situations.
Assignments: Your therapist may assign homework between sessions to practice the skills learned during therapy. These assignments help reinforce what you've learned and encourage the application of new strategies in real-life situations.
Progress monitoring: Regularly, you and your therapist will assess your progress toward your treatment goals. You'll discuss what's working and what's challenging and make adjustments to the treatment plan as needed.
At Two Chairs, therapy for anxiety may look different for you than for someone else. You may not want to engage in homework assignments, for example, and that’s okay! That’s all part of the process of finding the right care for you.
Finding help: How to begin therapy for anxiety
It can be overwhelming to navigate the world of anxiety. That’s why the first step to getting help is about finding the right therapist for you.
Research shows that the strength of the relationship between you and your therapist is the best predictor of successful treatment outcomes. With the right therapist-client match, you can feel supported, safe and validated, and even more confident in the therapy process.
By booking an appointment with Two Chairs, which uses research-backed matching processes to ensure the ideal client-therapist fit, you can find the right therapist on the first try — just like 98% of Two Chairs clients do.