Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 12/10/2020
It’s normal to experience anxiety from time to time, such as before a stressful situation or public event. However, if you frequently feel anxious when you’re on your own, around other people or in certain situations, you may suffer from an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety disorders are extremely common, with an estimated 19.1 percent of all American adults affected by some type of anxiety disorder each year.
Like other mental illnesses, anxiety disorders can vary hugely in type and severity. While some people with anxiety disorders may experience severe anxiety, others may be able to live normal lives outside of certain environments or situations.
While anxiety disorders can be frustrating and even debilitating at times, they don’t need to be something that ruins your life.
Today, a wide range of science-backed treatments are available to manage and treat anxiety, from prescription medications to therapy and certain lifestyle changes.
Below, we’ve explained everything you need to know about the treatments that are available for anxiety, from how they work to specific steps and techniques that you can use to take control of your anxiety and improve your quality of life.
There are numerous different anxiety disorders, from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) to specific phobias. Your treatment might differ from others based on the type of anxiety disorder you have, the severity of your symptoms and other factors.
Treating anxiety can take time. You may need to do psychotherapy or use medication for weeks, months or even years before you experience significant improvements.
Although they won’t “cure” anxiety, making changes to your lifestyle and habits may help you to manage your symptoms and improve your quality of life.
Many anxiety disorders are treated through psychotherapy, either on its own or in combination with medication.
Several different forms of psychotherapy are used to treat anxiety disorders. Common types of therapy include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, supportive therapy and interpersonal therapy.
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to therapy for anxiety. Instead, psychotherapy is tailored based on the type of anxiety disorder you have, your symptoms, your anxiety triggers and any other factors that may contribute to your anxiety disorder.
Data shows that psychotherapy can be highly effective for people with anxiety. According to the American Psychological Association, approximately 75 percent of people who undergo therapy for anxiety experience some benefits.
We’ve provided more information about the types of psychotherapy used for anxiety, how they work and more in our detailed guide to therapy for treating anxiety.
Many anxiety disorders can be managed and treated through the use of medication. There are several different types of medications used to treat anxiety. Currently, commonly used medications to treat anxiety are benzodiazepines, antidepressants and, for certain types of anxiety, beta blockers.
Benzodiazepines are a class of anxiolytic, or anti-anxiety, medications. They help to make the symptoms of anxiety less severe.
Benzodiazepines work by increasing the activity of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid, or GABA. GABA slows the activity of neurons, causing the brain and nervous system to function at a reduced pace and promoting feelings of calmness and sedation.
Many benzodiazepines are common, widely prescribed medications. You may have heard of medications such as Xanax® (which contains the active ingredient alprazolam), Klonopin® (clonazepam) and Valium® (diazepam). These are all benzodiazepines.
Benzodiazepines are commonly used as a first-line treatment for anxiety disorders. However, they have both advantages and disadvantages.
One of the biggest advantages of benzodiazepines is that they work very quickly to treat the symptoms of anxiety. For example, people prescribed Valium (diazepam) may experience a reduction in anxiety symptoms within a few hours or days of starting the medication.
The biggest disadvantages of benzodiazepines are their potential for abuse, their diminishing effectiveness over time and the risk of withdrawal symptoms or anxiety in people who abruptly stop using them.
Because of these risks, benzodiazepines are often prescribed to treat anxiety disorders in the short term, rather than as first-line long-term treatments for anxiety.
Benzodiazepines also come with the potential for side effects like fatigue, lightheadedness and dizziness, coordination impairment and a decrease of focus.
Although antidepressants are best known as treatments for depression, some antidepressants are also used to treat anxiety disorders.
Several types of antidepressants are prescribed for anxiety, with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) some of the most common first-line treatments.
Antidepressants function by increasing the levels of certain neurotransmitters in your brain and body. Most antidepressants used to treat anxiety increase the levels of serotonin, dopamine or norepinephrine, or several of these neurotransmitters together.
Like benzodiazepines, antidepressants are common medications. They’re used by millions of adults in the United States and other countries to treat both depression and a large variety of anxiety disorders.
You may have heard of medications such as Paxil® (paroxetine), Prozac® (fluoxetine), Zoloft® (sertraline) and Lexapro® (escitalopram). These are all antidepressants used to treat forms of anxiety.
Unlike benzodiazepines, the effects of antidepressants aren’t immediate. If you’re prescribed an antidepressant to treat anxiety, it may take several weeks or months before you begin to notice any improvement in your symptoms.
As with other prescription medications, antidepressants can cause side effects, including a risk of withdrawal symptoms if they’re stopped abruptly. As such, you’ll likely need to keep in touch with your healthcare provider throughout to assess your progress.
Beta-blockers are medications that are typically used to treat hypertension (high blood pressure) and cardiovascular health issues. They work by blocking the hormone epinephrine and reducing the speed and intensity at which your heart beats.
Although beta-blockers don’t treat anxiety disorders directly, they can treat some of the physical symptoms of anxiety, such as trembling, blushing, shaking and an increased heartbeat.
Most of the time, beta-blockers are used as-needed to treat situational anxiety, such as anxiety before a speech, presentation or performance. They may also be prescribed for some anxiety disorders, such as specific social phobias.
Buspirone is an anti-anxiety medication that’s often used to treat generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
Like other medications for anxiety, buspirone works by increasing the levels of chemicals, or neurotransmitters, in your brain.
Buspirone typically isn’t used as a first-line treatment for anxiety. Instead, it’s often used as a second-line medication behind SSRIs for patients who experience intolerable side effects or don’t fully respond to their first medication.
Research shows that buspirone is approximately as effective as a treatment for generalized anxiety disorder as benzodiazepines. Study data shows that upwards of half of all patients treated with buspirone experience a significant improvement in their symptoms.
As with many other medications for anxiety, buspirone doesn’t start working immediately. If you’re prescribed buspirone, it may take two to four weeks before you begin to notice any improvements.
Unlike benzodiazepines and some antidepressants, buspirone isn’t associated with any risk of physical dependence or withdrawal symptoms after the end of treatment.
If you visit your local health food shop or search online, you may come across various health supplements, foods and herbal remedies that claim to treat anxiety.
While the evidence behind natural anxiety treatments is mixed, there is some evidence that certain products may help to reduce anxiety and promote relaxation. Common foods, herbal remedies and other natural products marketed as treatments for anxiety include:
Chamomile tea. A pre-bedtime favorite of many, there’s some evidence that chamomile tea may help to reduce anxiety. In a study from 2009, chamomile extract outperformed a placebo as a treatment for mild to moderate generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
The researchers noted that while future research is necessary, the chamomile appeared to have a modest anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effect.
Passionflower. Another favorite of herbal tea enthusiasts, there’s some evidence that passionflower may help to reduce anxiety symptoms.
In a small, randomized, double-blind study published in 2001, passionflower performed approximately as well as oxazepam, a prescription benzodiazepine, as a treatment for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). This was a small study and researchers noted further studies are needed.
Valerian root. Although it’s better known as a natural sleep aid, valerian root is also promoted as a natural treatment for anxiety. On the whole, the scientific evidence is limited, with some research showing that it may have anti-anxiety effects.
Kava. Kava, a tropical plant that grows on several Pacific Islands, is often promoted as a natural alternative to anti-anxiety medications such as Xanax (alprazolam).
While there is some evidence that kava works as a natural treatment for anxiety, it’s also associated with issues such as hepatitis, cirrhosis, and, in some users, liver failure. As a result of these health risks, kava products have been banned in several countries.
Lemon balm. A popular herbal health product, research indicates that lemon balm may reduce anxiety and promote sleep when it’s taken with other calming herbs. However, it isn’t clear whether lemon balm is an effective treatment for anxiety on its own.
Lavender. Although research isn’t particularly comprehensive, some studies have found that lavender may help to treat anxiety disorders.
In an article published in 2017, researchers looked at a variety of studies and concluded that lavender exhibits “any desirable properties of an anxiolytic agent,” including calming effects, and that it may be a “reasonable alternative” for people with anxiety disorders.
It’s important to understand that supplements and herbal remedies aren’t monitored by the FDA in the same way that antidepressants, anxiolytics and other medications are.
Although some supplements, herbal products, and even crystals are believed to relieve the symptoms of anxiety, these products shouldn’t be viewed as replacements for therapy or FDA-approved anti-anxiety medications.
If you think that you may have an anxiety disorder, make sure that you talk to your healthcare provider before using any supplements or herbal treatments.
Although they shouldn’t be treated as replacements for therapy or medication, making certain changes to your habits and lifestyle may make dealing with anxiety easier. If you have anxiety, try the following lifestyle changes and self-treatment techniques:
Limit your alcohol and caffeine consumption. These can worsen anxiety and cause panic attacks.
Quit smoking. Like caffeine and alcohol, nicotine can worsen anxiety symptoms and make it harder to deal with your anxiety disorder.
Avoid illicit drugs. Likewise, many illicit drugs can worsen anxiety symptoms, as well as affecting other aspects of your mental and physical health and wellbeing.
Focus on staying physically active. Regular exercise can help to reduce stress and may improve your mood. It also has countless benefits that may make the process of overcoming an anxiety disorder easier for you.
Make use of stress management techniques. Your therapist may provide you with information about techniques that you can use to manage stress and anxiety, such as yoga, meditation and visualization techniques.
If you think that you may have an anxiety disorder, it’s important to talk to a licensed mental health professional.
Almost all anxiety disorders are treatable. However, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, less than 40 percent of people who suffer from anxiety disorders will receive treatment.
To seek help, you can do one of three things:
Talk to your healthcare provider. Your primary care provider can help you and, if appropriate, refer you to a mental health specialist.
Reach out to a psychiatrist in your area. If you’d like to get help locally, you can search for and contact a psychiatrist in your city.
Schedule an online psychiatric evaluation. You can talk to a licensed psychiatry provider online. If appropriate, you’ll be prescribed evidence-based medication for anxiety.
There’s no one-size-fits-all treatment for every anxiety disorder. Your healthcare provider will work with you to choose a suitable treatment based on your symptoms, the severity of your anxiety, your overall health and a wide range of other factors.
To treat your anxiety, you may need to undergo therapy, use medication or make changes to your lifestyle. Stay focused and follow your treatment plan and over time, you may notice real improvements to your mental health, general wellbeing and quality of life.