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Reviewed by Jill Johnson, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Worried you may have an anxiety disorder? You’re far from alone. An estimated 31.1 percent of US adults experience an anxiety disorder at some period in life, making anxiety one of the most common forms of mental illness.
Like many other forms of mental illness, anxiety disorders are more common in women, with just over 23 percent of women affected annually.
If you have anxiety, your mental health provider may suggest using cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, to manage your anxiety symptoms and make it easier to stay in control of your thoughts and feelings.
Below, we’ve covered the basics of what anxiety is, as well as the specific anxiety disorders that could affect you in life.
We’ve also discussed how CBT techniques for anxiety work and other options that are available for treating anxiety and improving your quality of life.
It’s normal to experience anxiety from time to time, such as before an important test, a first date, or other major event. However, when your anxiety feels constant, overwhelming, or begins to get in the way of your life on a regular basis, it may be a signal that you have an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders can involve persistent, severe anxiety that may get more extreme over time or occur in certain situations.
Unlike occasional anxiety, which is a normal emotion, anxiety disorders are mental health issues that almost always require ongoing treatment.
Common types of anxiety disorders include:
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). This disorder involves excessive and persistent feelings of worry and anxiety that occur either every day or on most days for a period of six months or longer.
Generalized anxiety disorder can cause you to feel as if you’re constantly on edge and fatigued. It may affect your moods, concentration and ability to sleep. For some people, this type of anxiety can interfere with work and relationships.
Social anxiety disorder (social phobia). Social anxiety disorder involves fear and anxiety that occurs before and during social situations or performances. If you have social anxiety disorder, you may worry that people evaluate you negatively in social situations.
Social anxiety can cause you to isolate yourself and avoid situations in which you may need to talk to or perform in front of other people.
Panic disorder. This type of anxiety disorder involves sudden, recurrent panic attacks that may occur in response to a trigger, such as an item or situation that causes you to feel anxious.
Panic attacks can involve severe symptoms, including trembling, shaking, shortness of breath and heart palpitations.
Specific phobias. Phobias, or phobia-related disorders, are intense fears that occur in the presence of a specific object or situation. If you have a phobia, you may experience fear that’s disproportionate to perceived threats around you.
Common phobias include but are not limited to intense fears of flying, heights, large crowds, spiders, or animals and blood.
Separation anxiety disorder. This type of anxiety involves an intense fear of being separated from a certain person, such as a partner. If you have separation anxiety, you may worry about the specific person being hurt or harmed when you’re separated.
Separation anxiety is most common in younger children and adolescents, but it can also affect adults.
Most forms of anxiety are diagnosed through an assessment with your primary care provider or a mental health professional. As part of the anxiety diagnosis process, your provider might ask you about your health history and any anxiety symptoms you typically experience.
Our full guide to anxiety disorders provides more information on the types of anxiety above and how they may affect your thoughts, feelings, behavior and general quality of life.
Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a form of psychotherapy that’s used to treat depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and other mental disorders. It’s a popular form of psychotherapy that’s been studied for decades and is widely used in modern treatment.
The aim of CBT is to help you gain a clearer, more thorough understanding of the way you think, feel and behave. It involves identifying false and potentially distressing beliefs, then taking steps to change them to help you gain more control over yourself.
One key idea behind CBT is that it’s not just specific things and situations that cause anxiety or other problems to develop, but the importance that’s often attached to them.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is something that you can do with a mental health provider, such as a licensed psychiatrist or psychologist. It’s usually performed in individual sessions over the course of several weeks or months.
Many aspects of CBT involve identifying distorted or inaccurate thought patterns that can result in anxiety.
For example, you may work with your mental health provider to identify situations in which you over-generalize, or draw a conclusion about a certain object or situation that’s far more general than the available evidence suggests.
This could mean understanding that a social situation that might result in embarrassment won’t always result in embarrassment.
It may also involve identifying habits such as catastrophizing, or assuming the worst outcome in situations that involve risks. Learning how to look at these situations through a non-judgmental lens may help you to gain more control over your negative emotions.
Another key aspect of cognitive-behavioral therapy is identifying learned behaviors that increase the severity of your anxiety, then taking steps to “unlearn” them by replacing them with new, less harmful habits.
For example, this could mean identifying behaviors that cause you to panic in certain situations, then working to replace them with relaxation techniques and other behaviors that calm you and prevent issues such as severe anxiety and/or panic attacks.
Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the most widely used forms of psychotherapy for anxiety disorders. Research shows that it’s often effective at reducing the severity of anxiety symptoms and improving the quality of life for people with anxiety.
For example, one article on cognitive therapy and exposure therapy — two common methods of CBT used in the treatment of anxiety disorders — concluded that both methods were backed up by proof of effectiveness.
They also found that exposure therapy — a form of CBT that involves confronting real-life fears in a controlled, safe setting — is also effective as a treatment for issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
However, the researchers also noted that studies of cognitive therapy for anxiety were limited in number, and that many involved a combination of exposure therapy and cognitive therapy rather than each method in isolation.
A review published in the journal CNS Spectrums in 2003 also found that CBT for social anxiety works effectively.
Other research has found that cognitive-behavioral therapy appears to produce measurable improvements in anxiety symptoms, both in randomized controlled trials and in everyday settings, but indicates further studies are needed.
Overall, the scientific research on CBT largely shows that it’s effective at reducing the severity of anxiety symptoms.
Unlike many other forms of therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy doesn’t have a standard length or treatment. It’s typically used as a short-term form of treatment that may involve a short series of sessions or slightly longer-term treatment over the course of several months.
Most people take part in one cognitive behavioral therapy session per week, with CBT treatment sessions lasting for approximately one hour on average.
Many people benefit from CBT for anxiety. However, other forms of treatment can also reduce the severity of anxiety, including anti-anxiety medications, other forms of therapy and changes that improve your habits and lifestyle.
If you’ve been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, your mental health provider may prescribe medication to manage your anxiety symptoms and help you maintain a normal daily life.
Your mental health provider may prescribe medication for use on its own or while you take part in cognitive-behavioral therapy.
If you’re prescribed medication for anxiety, take it exactly as prescribed. Let your mental health provider know if you experience any side effects. Don’t stop taking medication or adjust your dosage without consulting your mental health provider first.
Our guide to medications for anxiety goes into more detail about how anti-anxiety medications work, their benefits, potential side effects and more.
In addition to cognitive-behavioral therapy, several other forms of psychotherapy are often used to treat anxiety disorders.
Other approaches to therapy include psychoanalysis and psychodynamic therapies, humanistic therapy and integrative therapy that blends together elements from different methods of therapy to deliver a tailored form of treatment.
Our full guide to the types of therapy explains how various forms of psychotherapy can help you to overcome anxiety and other mental health disorders.
In addition to therapy and medication, making small but meaningful changes to your habits and daily life can potentially make the symptoms of anxiety less severe. If you’re affected by anxiety, try the habits and lifestyle changes below to get relief:
Use stress management techniques. Simple stress management techniques, such as breathing exercises, may help to calm your mind and make anxiety symptoms easier for you to deal with.
Keep yourself physically active. Aerobic exercise may help to make managing anxiety easier. Try to keep yourself physically active by exercising frequently, but make sure not to view exercise as a replacement for therapy and/or medication.
Practice mindfulness meditation. This form of meditation involves focusing all of your attention on the present, then accepting your feelings without judgment. Taking part in mindfulness meditation may help to reduce anxiety, depression and stress.
Limit your caffeine intake. If you have panic disorder, you may want to avoid drinking too much coffee. Research suggests that consuming a large amount of coffee or other caffeinated beverages may increase your risk of developing panic attacks.
Our guide to calming down anxiety shares other habits and simple techniques that you can use to calm your mind and limit the effects of anxiety on your moods, feelings and quality of life.
Anxiety is a common issue that can take a serious toll on your well-being. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of several evidence-based options available for treating anxiety and giving you more control over your feelings and thoughts.
If you have anxiety, you can access expert help via our online mental health services, including our psychiatry service. You’ll receive a tailored treatment plan that may include psychotherapy, ongoing messaging and check-ins and, if appropriate, evidence-based anxiety medication.
New to therapy? You can learn more about the benefits of therapy and how it works in our guide to what to expect in your first therapy session. You can also access proven methods for dealing with anxiety from home using our free online mental health resources and content.
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