Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress. It helps you deal with a tense situation in the office, study harder for an exam, or keep focused on an important speech. In general, it helps you cope. But when anxiety becomes an excessive, irrational dread of everyday things, it can be disabling.
Anxiety disorders affect about 40 million American adults age 18 years and older (about 18 percent). It’s not the same as the mild stress you may feel when you have to speak in public, or the butterflies you may feel in your stomach when going on a first date. Anxiety disorders can last at least six months and can get worse if they are not treated.
The five major types of anxiety disorder are:
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Panic disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Social phobia (social anxiety disorder)
Yes, there are treatments that can help people with anxiety disorders. Their is no cure for anxiety disorder yet, but treatments can give relief to people who have it and help them live a more normal life. The first step is to go to a doctor or health clinic to talk about your symptoms. The doctor will do an exam to make sure that another physical problem isn’t causing the symptoms. The doctor may make a referral to a mental health specialist.
Doctors may prescribe medication to help relieve anxiety disorders. It’s important to know that some of these medicines may take a few weeks to start working. In most states only a medical doctor (a family doctor or psychiatrist) can prescribe medications.
The kinds of medicines used to treat anxiety disorders are listed below. Some are used to treat other problems, such as depression, but also are helpful for anxiety disorders:
- Anti-anxiety medicines
- Beta blockers
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, you should talk to your doctor about your anxiety treatment. Stopping your treatment all of a sudden could be harmful to you. Some medications used to treat anxiety cross the placenta and can be transmitted to the baby in your uterus. Also, because your medication can be passed into your breast milk, breastfeeding may pose some risk for a nursing infant.
However, a number of research studies show that certain antidepressants, such as some of the SSRIs have been used relatively safely during breastfeeding. You should discuss with your doctor whether breastfeeding is an option or whether you should plan to feed your baby formula. Although breastfeeding has some advantages for your baby, most importantly, as a mother, you need to stay healthy so you can take care of your baby.
Before taking medication for an anxiety disorder:
- Ask your doctor to tell you about the effects and side effects of the drug.
- Tell your doctor about any alternative therapies or over-the-counter medications you are using.
- Ask your doctor when and how the medication should be stopped. Some drugs can’t be stopped abruptly but must be tapered off slowly under a doctor’s supervision.
- Work with your doctor to determine which medication is right for you and what dosage is best.
- Be aware that some medications are effective only if they are taken regularly and that symptoms may come back if the medication is stopped.
Doctors also may ask people with anxiety disorders to go to talk therapy with a licensed social worker, psychologist, or psychiatrist. This treatment can help people with anxiety disorders feel less anxious and fearful. If you know someone with signs of an anxiety disorder, talk to him or her about seeing a doctor. Offer to go along for support.
Many people find it helps to join a support group because they can share their problems and successes with others who are going through the same thing. Internet chat rooms can be useful for support, but any advice received over the Internet should be used with caution. Internet friends may have never seen each other, and false identities are common.
While it doesn’t take the place of mental health care, talking with trusted friends or a member of your faith community can also be very helpful. Family members can play an important role in a person’s treatment by offering support. Learning how to manage stress will help you to stay calm and focused. Research suggests that aerobic exercise (like jogging, bicycling, and swimming) may be calming. Other studies have found that caffeine, illegal drugs, and some over-the-counter cold medicines can worsen the symptoms of these disorders. Check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking any over-the-counter medicines.
If you don’t know where to go for help, talk to someone you trust who has experience in mental health — for example, a doctor, nurse, social worker, or religious counselor. Ask their advice on where to seek treatment. If there is a university nearby, its departments of psychiatry or psychology may offer private and/or sliding-scale fee clinic treatment options. Otherwise, check the Yellow Pages under “mental health,” “health,” “social services,” “crisis intervention services,” “hotlines,” “hospitals,” or “physicians” for phone numbers and addresses. In times of crisis, the emergency room doctor at a hospital may be able to provide temporary help for a mental health problem, and will be able to tell you where and how to get further help.
Listed below are the types of people and places that will make a referral to, or provide mental health care and information.
- Family doctors
- Mental health specialists, such as psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, or mental health counselors
- Religious leaders/counselors
- Health maintenance organizations
- Community mental health centers
- Hospital psychiatry departments and outpatient clinics
- Universities or medical schools
- State hospital outpatient clinics
- Social service agencies
- Private clinics and facilities
- Employee assistance programs
- Local medical and/or psychiatric societies
For more information about anxiety disorders, call womenshealth.gov at 800-994-9662 (TDD: 888-220-5446) or contact the following organizations:
- Anxiety Disorders Association of America
- Mental Health America
- National Institute of Mental Health
Phone: 301-443-4513, 866-615-6464
- National Mental Health Consumers’ Self-Help Clearinghouse
Phone: 215-751-1810, 800-553-4539
Anxiety disorders fact sheet was reviewed by:
Catherine Roca, M.D.,
Office for Special Populations
National Institute of Mental Health/National Institutes of Health