Therapy for Treating Anxiety: How It Works, Types & Effectiveness

Kristin Hall

Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 9/22/2020

Worried you may have an anxiety disorder? You’re not alone. More than 40 million American adults are affected by anxiety disorders.

If you’ve been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, your healthcare provider may recommend medication, therapy or both to help you manage your symptoms and treat your anxiety. 

Several types of therapy are used to treat anxiety disorders, from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to exposure therapy.

Below, we’ve explained how therapy can help you to overcome anxiety. We’ve also looked at the specific forms of therapy that are used to treat anxiety disorders, from how each method works, to the effectiveness of therapy as a treatment for anxiety.

Therapy for Anxiety: The Basics

  • Therapy is a common treatment for anxiety disorders. If you have an anxiety disorder, your healthcare provider may recommend therapy either on its own or in combination with anti-anxiety medication.

  • Anxiety disorders can differ significantly in type and severity, meaning there isn’t any one-size-fits-all approach to therapy. Instead, your healthcare provider will tailor your therapy to address your specific fears, triggers, symptoms and overall needs.

  • According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 75 percent of people who enter into psychotherapy experience benefits from their treatment.

  • As with other treatments, therapy typically works well, but it isn’t instant. You’ll need to take therapy seriously and continue for as long as needed to see real improvements in your thoughts, feelings and behavior.

  • Therapy can happen both in-person or online. Many therapy sessions are conducted in an individual setting, while others can take place in a group setting with others based on your needs.

  • Not all people with anxiety disorders take part in therapy. Depending on the severity and type of your anxiety disorder, your symptoms and other factors, your healthcare provider may prescribe medication without therapy. 

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How Therapy Works

Anxiety disorders are commonly treated through a form of therapy called psychotherapy, or talk therapy.

As part of psychotherapy, you’ll meet with a mental health professional to discuss your issues and make progress towards dealing with your anxiety disorder and its effects on your life. 

Most of the time, each therapy session lasts for 30 to 50 minutes. Based on the type of anxiety disorder you have, the severity of your symptoms and other factors, you may need to talk with your mental healthcare provider for anywhere from a few sessions to several months, a year or longer. 

Effective therapy depends on you and your mental health professional building trust with each other. The topics you discuss in therapy and the information you disclose to your mental healthcare provider is confidential, letting you talk about your life, issues and anything else in complete confidence. 

Types of Therapy for Anxiety

Several different types of psychotherapy are used to treat anxiety disorders. Which type of therapy you receive will depend on the mental health professional you work with, based on what’s best suited for your needs, symptoms and other factors. 

Common forms of psychotherapy that are used to treat anxiety include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Cognitive behavioral therapy is a form of therapy that involves learning to recognize thinking patterns that contribute to problems such as anxiety, and using problem-solving skills to cope with anxiety-producing situations.

    The goal of CBT is typically to change behavioral patterns. Research shows that CBT is effective for anxiety disorders and can lead to improvements in functioning and quality of life.

  • Exposure therapy. Exposure therapy is a form of therapy that involves confronting fears or anxiety triggers in a safe environment. For example, you may be exposed to an object that triggers your anxiety in a safe, controlled setting.

    Scientific research shows that exposure therapy is helpful for treating anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, post traumatic stress disorder and specific phobias.

  • Dialectical behavior therapy. A specific type of cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy was originally developed to treat borderline personality disorder (BPD) and is now used to treat disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, substance abuse and eating disorders.

  • Interpersonal therapy. Originally developed to treat depression, interpersonal therapy involves working with a mental health professional to overcome interpersonal issues that are contributing to mental health issues, such as conflict in relationships, grief or work-related issues.

    Interpersonal therapy often involves understanding the source of your mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety. This form of therapy is often helpful for issues preceded by a major life shift, such as a personal loss or conflict.

  • Psychodynamic therapy. Psychodynamic therapy is a form of therapy that focuses on past factors that may contribute to current psychological issues, such as depression and anxiety.

    Psychodynamic therapy is less structured than many other forms of therapy, and tends to focus on self-reflection and self-examination as a way to understand issues and help you make progress towards a healthier life.

  • Supportive therapy. Supportive therapy involves developing self-esteem and reducing anxiety through guidance and encouragement, allowing patients to develop their own tools to manage their anxiety disorder.

In some cases, other types of therapy, such as creative arts therapy, animal-assisted therapy, or ecotherapy, may be used as a part of treatment for anxiety disorders. 

Does Therapy Work for Anxiety Disorders?

The short answer? Yes. 

Although not everyone with anxiety disorders benefits from therapy, the majority of people who undergo psychotherapy experience improvements.

According to the American Psychological Association, reviews of study data indicate that about 75 percent of people who undergo psychotherapy experience benefits.

Other research shows that people who undergo psychotherapy are, on average, better off than by the end of treatment than 80 percent of people who don’t undergo any treatment.

While psychotherapy is effective, it’s not an instant solution for anxiety. Psychotherapy requires a significant commitment, and it may take weeks or months before you begin to experience any improvements in your feelings, behavior and overall quality of life. 

It’s important to remember that psychotherapy can be short-term or long-term depending on the complexity of your issues.

And hey… That’s okay.

There are also several factors that could affect how effective therapy is as a treatment for your anxiety disorder. These include: 

  • The specific type of anxiety disorder you have. There are several different types of anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, social anxiety disorder (SAD) and numerous others like climate anxiety.

    Your mental health professional will tailor your treatment based on the type of anxiety disorder you have and the severity of your symptoms. No two people are the same, meaning it may take anywhere from a few sessions or several months before you experience improvements.

    The important takeaway here is: stick with it. It can take time.

  • Your goals from therapy. During your first few sessions, you’ll usually work with your mental health professional to develop goals that you’d like to achieve from your treatment. These goals — and their complexity — may affect your treatment timeline.

  • Your use of medication. While not all people with anxiety disorders need medication, you may need to take medication as well as taking part in psychotherapy.

    Like psychotherapy, the effects of medication aren’t always instant. It may take several weeks or months before you experience improvements after starting medication to treat anxiety.

  • Your relationship with your mental health professional. Psychotherapy requires trust between you and your mental health professional. Sometimes, the relationship between patient and mental health professional isn’t as strong as it should be — a factor that may affect the effectiveness of treatment.

    Just like it’s often necessary to try several medications before finding one that works for you, it’s sometimes necessary (and helpful) to change mental health professionals if you can’t achieve the trust and therapeutic alliance you need for effective change.

How Long Will You Need to Undergo Therapy?

Although many people associate psychotherapy with years of regular sessions, the reality is that for most people, psychotherapy isn’t something that you’ll need to undergo for your entire life.

The amount of time that you’ll need to undergo psychotherapy can vary hugely depending on your specific symptoms, the severity of your anxiety disorder, your goals, your history and the speed at which you make progress.

For some, making progress may only take a few weeks. For others, it may take several months or years of ongoing therapy before you feel that you’ve achieved your goals. 

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In Conclusion

If you believe that you have an anxiety disorder, it’s important to seek help. Anxiety is treatable, and talking to an expert is the easiest way to learn more about the numerous treatment options that can help you to manage your symptoms and make progress.

From cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to exposure therapy, several different types of therapy are used to treat anxiety disorders. Depending on your anxiety disorder and specific symptoms, your healthcare provider may suggest therapy alone or in combination with medication. 

Therapy isn’t an immediate solution for anxiety, but it does work. By working with your mental health professional, you’ll be able to make progress towards overcoming anxiety and improve your quality of life. 

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.

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