Therapy for Anxiety Disorders: Types and How They Work

Beth Pausic, Psy.D.

Reviewed by Beth Pausic, Psy.D

Written by Taylor Trudon

Published 09/21/2020

Updated 08/11/2023

Whether you’re moving to a new home, re-entering the dating scene after a breakup or are about to make a big career change, having occasional anxiety is a normal part of life. 

What isn’t normal, however, is when your anxiety starts to interfere with daily life in debilitating ways, preventing you from doing normal tasks or engaging in social situations. If this sounds relatable, you might have an anxiety disorder.

Don’t panic, though: While dealing with anxiety can definitely feel isolating, you’re not alone in your struggle. In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that roughly 19 percent of American adults have had an anxiety disorder within the past year. 

And here’s the good part: Anxiety disorders are a type of mental illness that’s highly treatable.

Once you get an official diagnosis from a healthcare provider, they might recommend therapy, medication (such as antidepressants) or a combination of both as part of a treatment plan based on your unique symptoms of anxiety.

Just like there are many types of anxiety disorders, there are also many types of therapy that are useful in helping to reduce anxiety symptoms. From cognitive behavioral therapy to exposure therapy, there’s a multitude of effective treatments.

So it’s only natural to wonder: What’s the best type of therapy for me?

That’s a great question. Though a mental health professional is always an excellent choice for seeking out medical advice, it’s still useful to do a little of your own research first.

To get you started, we’ll take a closer look at the specific kinds of therapy used to treat anxiety disorders, how they work and other options you may want to consider as you take steps to improve your mental health. 

Let’s dive in.

The big question: Does therapy help with anxiety? Yes. So if you have an anxiety disorder, there’s a good chance your healthcare provider will suggest it as treatment. 

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Before recommending anxiety treatment, your provider will likely ask you about your symptoms. 

The most common symptoms associated with anxiety include: 

  • Feelings of restlessness

  • Irritability

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Fatigue

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Physical symptoms like aches and pains

  • Increased heart rate

Working directly with a mental health professional not only gives you the opportunity to open up about your struggles in a safe environment, but you can also learn evidence-based coping skills to help reduce your specific symptoms.

There’s a high success rate, too: Roughly 75 percent of people who participate in psychotherapy (or talk therapy) report feeling improvement. 

Since everyone’s anxiety is unique and caused by different triggers, there is no one-size-fits-all therapy solution. Your provider will determine what approach is best for you based on the severity of your symptoms, how long they last and other factors like lifestyle habits.

Some people go to therapy because of a specific life circumstance (for example, they’re going through a bad breakup) with the intention of eventually stopping when they feel better. Others stay in therapy for years. In some cases, providers may recommend medication without any therapy at all.

At the end of the day, there’s no “right” way to do therapy, and it isn’t a quick fix. It typically requires commitment and consistency to feel real improvements, regardless of which type of therapy you choose to explore. 

There’s an array of therapies used to help reduce symptoms related to anxiety disorders. The most common types of psychotherapy used to treat anxiety are: 

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)

  • Exposure therapy 

  • Dialectical behavior therapy 

  • Interpersonal therapy 

  • Psychodynamic therapy 

  • Supportive therapy

Let’s take a closer look at each.  

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) 

Cognitive behavioral therapy, also known as CBT, is highly effective for many issues, such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse problems, eating disorders and even marital problems.

In fact, CBT is considered the “gold standard” when it comes to the psychotherapeutic treatment of anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acute stress disorder, social anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

So, how does it work? By combining cognitive therapy and behavioral therapy, CBT helps patients focus on changing their behaviors and thought patterns.

One of the main objectives is for people to learn to be their own therapists by engaging in exercises outside of therapy sessions that practice identifying and changing their negative thoughts or behaviors.

For example, if a person with severe anxiety has a tendency to catastrophize even the smallest of problems (i.e., they made a small mistake at work and immediately believe they’re going to get fired), they might work on certain strategies to help reframe their thinking.

Like other types of therapy, CBT can be used as a treatment on its own or alongside anti-anxiety medications like SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). 

Exposure Therapy

Exposure therapy works by “exposing” you to (or rather, confronting) your fears or triggers in a safe environment. This can be especially useful for treating GAD, panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, PTSD and OCD, as well as specific phobias.

For instance, if you’ve always had panic attacks in the presence of dogs, your mental health professional might suggest exposure therapy as an effective treatment. This may entail taking small steps to confront that specific anxiety in a controlled setting.

Instead of going to a dog park on a Saturday at 8 a.m. (which may be considered extreme for those with canine phobia), your anxiety therapist might recommend hanging out with a friend’s dog you’re already familiar with and going from there.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy

Dialectical behavior therapy is an adapted type of CBT. It was initially created to help those with borderline personality disorder (BPD), but nowadays, it’s proven to be effective in treating people with depression, eating disorders, PTSD and substance abuse problems.

DBT helps provide people with the skills to live in the present, along with healthy strategies to manage stress and emotions.

Interpersonal Therapy

Interpersonal therapy, or IPT, is a recent-ish type of therapy that was developed in the late 1960s to treat major depression. IPT recognizes that when you’re dealing with a depressive disorder, many facets of your life can become negatively affected, including your personal relationships.

And when those relationships — be it with a romantic partner, friend or boss — start to take a nosedive, your mental health can become even worse. 

Interpersonal therapy aims to stop this cycle by taking a closer look at your relationships and where you can make room for improvements. The idea is that once you’re able to manage those relationships better, your mood will be boosted and your depression can improve. That said, this kind of therapy is intended to be more short-term, lasting about 12 to 16 weeks.

In addition to treating depression, IPT may help with other anxiety disorders, such as social anxiety and PTSD, as well as bipolar disorder and body dysmorphic disorders. 

Psychodynamic Therapy

To better understand what you’re going through in the present, it’s sometimes helpful to examine your past. Psychodynamic therapy does just that through self-reflection and discussion of the thinking and behavioral patterns that have culminated in any psychological issues you might have today, like anxiety or depression. 

Though the words “psychodynamic therapy” may sound fancy, it’s really just about unpacking who you are, how you got here and how to use this information to make healthier choices in the future.

Psychodynamic therapy is particularly helpful for those with anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, panic disorders and stress disorders. But honestly, it’s useful for anyone who ultimately wants to make changes in their life. 

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Supportive Therapy

The goal of supportive therapy is to strengthen your self-esteem and confidence with the help of emotional support and validation — just like a good friend would.

Unlike other forms of therapy, like CBT or psychodynamic therapy, the focus is less on trying to change your behavior and more on providing a safe space to talk about your feelings. Supportive therapy can help with numerous mental health conditions, like bipolar disorder, PTSD, anxiety disorders, depression and schizophrenia. 

Though it’s not as thoroughly researched, supportive therapy is among the most popular kinds of therapy, as it’s thought to be at the core of all healthcare professional-patient relationships. After all, any time you visit a provider, it’s their job to listen to your symptoms and feelings while cultivating a safe environment to do so. 

From acceptance and commitment therapy (which is designed to treat a range of mental health disorders) to eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy (which can be especially helpful for patients who’ve had traumatic experiences), we’ve only just begun to skim the surface when it comes to the different therapy options available.

Interested in exploring more options? Delve into nine different types of therapy in our blog.

Here’s the thing: Starting therapy can be extremely effective, but it’s not like taking a magical pill that suddenly fixes all your problems (though, admittedly, that would be nice).

To get the most out of anxiety therapy, a little bit of legwork needs to happen beforehand, including:

  • Finding the right mental healthcare professional. It’s important to have a mental health provider who’s not only able to address your specific needs but that you vibe with as well. (After all, you’ll be spending a good chunk of time together.) You also might consider seeing a provider who specializes in the anxiety disorder you have, be it a panic disorder, social anxiety or something else. Regardless of who you choose, it might be a few weeks or even several months before you fully feel the effects of therapy, so don’t feel discouraged if you don’t notice improvements right away. It’s important to be patient with your progress.

  • Deciding between online vs. in-person therapy. Beyond choosing who you want to work with, you need to decide how. The good news is that you have choices. Some people prefer to speak with a licensed therapist or mental healthcare provider in-person, while others would rather do it virtually from the comfort of their home through online therapy. It entirely depends on your comfort level, routine and preferences, but both are equally effective. 

  • Starting healthy lifestyle habits. We hate to be a Debbie Downer, but certain substances like caffeine and alcohol can have a negative effect on your mood, especially if you’re prone to anxiety. With that said, you might consider cutting back on your espressos and post-work glasses of pinot. You can also reduce anxiety symptoms by incorporating exercise into your routine and practicing relaxation techniques like deep breathing, mindfulness and journaling

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If you’re struggling with an anxiety disorder, getting help is the most important step you can take for your mental health. Once you connect with a mental healthcare provider, they can come up with the best treatment plan for you, which may involve therapy.

As you explore your options, here are a few key takeaways to keep in mind:  

  • There’s a wide range of anxiety therapies. Whether it’s CBT or psychodynamic therapy, in-person or online therapy, your provider can guide you toward the best treatment option. It’s important to remember that, like medication, it can take time to feel the full benefits of therapy. Therapy isn’t an instant fix but rather an ongoing progression as you work on your mental health goals. Not quite ready for one-on-one therapy? There are also online support groups you can join, some of which are anonymous for an extra layer of privacy.

  • Some people benefit from both medication and therapy. Not every type of mental illness requires medication, but your prescriber might recommend taking antidepressants (or another medication) in addition to going to therapy. Research tells us that, generally speaking, both therapy and medication can be incredibly effective when combined. It should be noted, though, that only certain kinds of mental health professionals (like psychiatrists or primary care providers) can prescribe medication. (The Hers online psychiatry platform can help you find someone).

Want to learn more about what your medication options are for treating anxiety, like antidepressants, benzodiazepines and beta blockers? Our guide to getting anti-anxiety medication can help give you a more in-depth overview, including how they work and side effects to be aware of.

Just remember: The best therapy for anxiety is the one that works for you. In the meantime, our mental health services are always available if you need additional resources.

20 Sources

Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references.

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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.

Beth Pausic, Psy.D

Dr. Beth Pausic is a clinical psychologist and oversees the therapy platform at Hims & Hers. 

Prior to Hims & Hers, Beth worked in senior roles at several behavioral healthcare startups focused on the digital delivery of emotional support and treatment through both conventional and innovative approaches. 

Her experience prior to working in telebehavioral health includes over 15 years as a Clinical Administrator and provider in diverse clinical settings. In her clinical work, she primarily focused on anxiety, depression and relationships. 

Dr. Pausic received her doctorate from George Washington University. You can find Beth on Linkedin for more information.

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