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Treatment and Medication for Generalized Anxiety Disorder

A number of treatments can help reduce the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Most effective treatment plans will incorporate both self-help measures and therapy. In more severe cases of GAD, medication may also be used.

Therapy for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

Therapy is a key component of treatment for generalized anxiety disorder. Many studies show that therapy is as effective as medication for most people. And best of all, therapy for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is side-effect free.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is one type of therapy that is particularly helpful in the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Cognitive-behavioral therapy examines distortions in our ways of looking at the world and ourselves.

Your therapist will help you identify automatic negative thoughts that contribute to your anxiety. For example, if you catastrophize—always imagining the worst possible outcome in any given situation—you might challenge this tendency through questions such as, “What is the likelihood that this worst-case scenario will actually come true?” and “What are some positive outcomes that are more likely to happen?”.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy for GAD involves five components:

  • Education. CBT involves learning about generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). It also teaches you how to distinguish between helpful and unhelpful worry. An increased understanding of your anxiety encourages a more accepting and proactive response to it.
  • Monitoring. In CBT for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), you learn to monitor your anxiety, including what triggers it, the specific things you worry about, and the severity and length of a particular episode. This helps you get perspective, as well as track your progress.
  • Physical control strategies. Deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation help decrease the physical over-arousal of the “fight or flight” response that maintains the state of fear and anxiety. CBT for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) trains you in these techniques.
  • Cognitive control strategies. Through CBT, you learn to realistically evaluate and alter the thinking patterns that contribute to generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). As you challenge these negative thoughts, your fears will begin to subside. CBT also teaches you to test the beliefs you have about worry itself, such as “Worry is uncontrollable” or “If I worry, bad things are less likely to happen.”
  • Behavioral strategies. Instead of avoiding situations you fear, CBT teaches you to tackle them head on. You may start by imagining the thing you’re most afraid of. By focusing on your fears without trying to avoid or escape them, you will begin to feel more in control and less anxious. Time management and problem-solving skills are also effective behavioral techniques for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

Learning more about therapy for anxietyLearning more about therapy for anxiety

When it comes to treating anxiety, research shows that therapy is usually more effective than medication. That’s because therapy treats more than just the symptoms of the problem. What’s more, many of the techniques you learn can be practiced at home and put into daily use.

Read: Therapy For Anxiety Disorders: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Exposure Therapy, and Other Options.

Medication for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

Medication can be effective for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). However, it is generally recommended only as a temporary measure to relieve symptoms at the beginning of the treatment process, with therapy the key to long-term success.

There are three types of medication prescribed for generalized anxiety disorder:

  • Buspirone – This anti-anxiety drug, known by the brand name Buspar, is generally considered to be the safest drug for generalized anxiety disorder. Unlike the benzodiazepines, buspirone isn’t sedating or addictive. Although buspirone will take the edge off, it will not entirely eliminate anxiety.
  • Benzodiazepines – These anti-anxiety drugs act very quickly (usually within 30 minutes to an hour). The rapid relief the benzodiazepines provide is a major benefit, but there are serious drawbacks as well. Physical and psychological dependence are common after more than a few weeks of use. They are generally recommended only for severe, paralyzing episodes of anxiety.
  • Antidepressants – A number of antidepressants are used in the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). However, the relief antidepressants provide for anxiety is not immediate, and the full effect isn’t felt for up to six weeks. Some antidepressants can also exacerbate sleep problems and cause nausea.

Learning more about therapy for anxietyDeciding if Medication is Right for You

In order to decide whether anxiety medication is right for you, it’s important to talk to your doctor and weigh the drug benefits against the drawbacks. Once you’ve researched your options, including other therapies and lifestyle changes that may help, you can make an informed decision.

Read: Anxiety Medication: What You Need to Know About Anti-Anxiety Drugs.

Authors: Melinda Smith, M.A. and Robert Segal, M.A. Last updated: October 2011

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