Generalized Anxiety Disorder Treatment

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) can be treated with therapy, medications or a combination of both under the supervision of a doctor. Generalized anxiety disorder treatment can be highly effective in relieving symptoms.

Table Of Contents


Need For Generalized Anxiety Disorder Treatment (GAD)

Anxiety is a common feeling that most of us experience almost on a daily basis. In fact, it is a necessary and normal emotion which ensures our survival. However, pathologically heightened anxiety can be related to a number of psychiatric conditions like anxiety disorders. A 2018 study states, “anxiety is considered a disease requiring treatment when it arises in the absence of any threat, or in disproportionate relation to a threat, and keeps the affected individual from leading a normal life.” People suffering from GAD tend to be persistently stressed, worried and anxious. This makes them prone to avoid activities and environments which may trigger their anxiety without any logical explanation. This mental health condition can adversely affect a person’s thoughts, behavior, decision making abilities, education or career, social life, intimate relationships and other important aspects of life. This is why it is crucial that you consult a doctor and seek generalized anxiety disorder treatment.

Evidence 1 suggests that effective long-term treatment involving therapy and medications can prove to be beneficial and improve the symptoms of the disorder. Researchers from a 2002 study 2 explain “Psychotherapy, particularly relaxation, cognitive therapy, and cognitive-behavioral therapy, has shown long-term benefit in GAD and may be a useful approach alone and as an adjunct to pharmacotherapeutic options.” Proper diagnosis and treatment will enable you to improve your mental and emotional health, enhance your performance, make you open to new opportunities and strengthen relationships.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder Treatment Options

GAD is typically treated with either psychotherapy, prescription drugs or both. The treatment process may take some time depending on the severity of the condition and the individual. Here are some of the most effective treatment options available for this condition:

1. Psychotherapy

Therapy, commonly known as psychological counseling and talk therapy, can help to relieve symptoms of GAD when supervised by a licensed mental health professional, like a psychiatrist, psychologist or a therapist. Here are a few psychotherapy techniques that can help to overcome the disorder:

A. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a popular type of psychotherapy and one of the most widely recommended generalized anxiety disorder treatment strategies. Considered as the current gold standard of psychotherapy, CBT is a short-term treatment which mainly focuses on helping patients learn certain coping skills that will enable them to manage their thoughts and emotions, including stress, anxiety and worry, and help them overcome the tendency to avoid situations and activities they deem anxiety-inducing.

CBT involves psychoeducation, changing maladaptive behavior and thought patterns and cautious exposure to anxiety-inducing circumstances. Through gradual exposure, it helps the patient to manage their reactions to stressful situations and control their feelings of fear, worry and anxiety. Evidence 3 shows that after CBT, patients “displayed an attenuation of symptoms and activation in the left amygdala and subgenual ACC to threat-related emotional cues.” CBT can also help the sufferer develop helpful coping mechanisms and learn new strategies to overcome their anxiety. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be extremely beneficial in improving symptoms, when used along with medication.

Research 4 has found that cognitive behavioral therapy is “efficacious” for anxiety disorders in adults. One 2017 study 5 states “CBT is an effective treatment for GAD, typically leading to reductions in worry, and a study has shown that such therapy is equal to pharmaceutical treatment and more effective 6 months after study completion.” Another 2015 study 6 has found that CBT is both efficacious and effective in not just generalized anxiety disorder treatment, but also in improving social anxiety disorder, panic disorder and specific phobia symptoms as well.

B. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

ACT is another form of psychotherapy that is focused on the present and the current problem, instead of past issues. This is another effective generalized anxiety disorder treatment that aims to alleviate the sufferer’s struggle to manage stress, anxiety and sensations which cause distress & discomfort. The primary goals of this psychological intervention are –

  • Training acceptance of unhelpful, difficult thoughts and emotions which cannot be controlled and may be eliminated
  • Committing and acting towards building a life filled with chosen values

It also focuses on improving patient’s involvement in activities that have meaning and value to the sufferer’s life. Research 7 has found evidence that acceptance and commitment therapy can be highly effective in the treatment of anxiety. One 2015 study 8 explains that ACT for GAD is “an innovative acceptance-based behavior therapy that focuses on decreasing the behavior regulatory function of anxiety and related cognitions, and has a strong focus on behavior change,” of the patient. Researchers 9 have also observed that ACT can be especially helpful in improving symptoms in older adults 10 with geriatric generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).

The objective of ACT is to reduce the patient’s struggle to regulate or remove certain aversive internal experiences, like thoughts, memories, emotions, urges and sensations. ACT also helps in increasing engagement in meaningful life activities.

C. Psychodynamic therapy

Also known as psychoanalytic psychotherapy or insight-oriented therapy, psychodynamic psychotherapy is a type of depth psychology. The main objective of this treatment is to identify the unconscious thoughts of a patient’s psyche to relieve their mental tension. The therapy relies on the principle that our thoughts and feelings are often regulated by factors outside our awareness and consciousness. This can lead to internal conflict and cause anxiety. Research 11 reveals that short-term psychodynamic therapy is effective in treating certain anxiety disorders.

However, studies 12 have observed that in comparison with cognitive behavioral therapy, psychodynamic therapy has been found to be weaker for generalized anxiety disorder treatment.

D. Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT)

Interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT) is a time restricted treatment strategy focused on the present instead of the past. The therapy is based on the belief that symptoms of most mental disorders are based on the patient’s social and interpersonal relationships. It is assumed that improving social functioning and relationships can help to relieve symptoms. This evidence-based approach has been found to be effective in the treatment of anxiety disorders, according to research 13 . A 2014 study 14 found that “IPT shows some promise for anxiety disorders but has thus far shown no advantages in controlled trials relative to other therapies.” The researchers found that “IPT lowered anxiety symptoms, was well tolerated, and had low attrition,” but may not be more effective than CBT.

E. Psychoeducation

Apart from the therapy strategies mentioned above, a mental health expert may also recommend psychoeducation as a helpful option for generalized anxiety disorder treatment. A 2017 study 15 explains “Psychoeducation includes information about the physiology of the bodily symptoms of anxiety reactions and the rationale of available treatment possibilities.” Another 2009 study 16 found that brief passive psycho-educational interventions for depression, anxiety and psychological distress can effectively help to relieve symptoms. Another 2010 study 17 recommends psychoeducation for effective generalized anxiety disorder treatment, including providing information related to the causes and treatment of their disorder. Further research 18 suggests that family members and relatives of the patients must also be included in such sessions as teaching family members about the nature of the illness is as important as teaching patients.

2. Medications

Various types of medications are prescribed by doctors and mental health professionals for generalized anxiety disorder treatment. Typically, medications for GAD interact with certain chemicals in the brain known as neurotransmitters. These medications can enhance the activities or block the absorption of such brain chemicals. According to a 2013 study 19 , “patients with anxiety disorders benefit from decades of psychopharmacological research that has yielded safer, more tolerable side-effect profiles than before.”

However, it should be noted that the medications for GAD treatment may cause certain side effects like sleeping problems, nausea and headaches. It is recommended that the patient consults their doctor regarding any side effects they may experience. Moreover, medications have been known to be powerfully effective in reducing anxiety in a short period of time. However, this may lead to tolerance and dependence when used continuously. Hence, it is important to follow the instruction of the doctor and take the medications only for the prescribed brief periods of time.

Usually, the following types of medications are used in the treatment of GAD:

A. Antidepressants

Antidepressants like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and selective serotonin norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are considered as the most effective drugs for generalized anxiety disorder treatment. “Many national guidelines for the management of anxiety disorders recommend the use of SSRIs as first-line treatment,” explains a 2007 study 20 . However, these medications can take many weeks to show any positive effect. SSRIs, like fluoxetine 21 (Prozac) and sertraline 22 (Zoloft) are widely prescribed as these drugs are well tolerated by most patients. Moreover, vilazodone, paroxetine, fluvoxamine, escitalopram and citalopram are also SSRIs prescribed by doctors. These drugs inhibit the serotonin transporter and result in the desensitization of postsynaptic serotonin receptors. This helps to balance the activities of serotonergic pathways.

On the other hand, SNRIs inhibit serotonin and norepinephrine transporters. The drugs in this category include duloxetine, desvenlafaxine and venlafaxine. SNRIs are primarily used when SSRIs fail to be effective or patients don’t respond. One 2014 study 23 has found that “duloxetine has the most FDA-approved indications of any SNRI,” and has been found to be effective in the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder and depression. Another study 24 revealed that in placebo-controlled trials, “venlafaxine has demonstrated efficacy significantly greater than placebo in the treatment of GAD patients without accompanying depression.”

B. Anxiolytics

Anxiolytics like benzodiazepines focus more on effectively treating the GAD symptoms rather than treating the underlying causes leading to anxiety. But such types of medications can cause certain potential side effects like habit-forming and sedation. Benzodiazepines, like clonazepam and diazepam, are long-acting agents that can help in relieving symptoms immediately or when short-term treatment is recommended. Research 25 has found that although effective in treating anxiety disorders, benzodiazepines can “cause significant problems in terms of side effects, dependence or an exacerbation of symptoms.” Hence, patients with alcohol or drug misuse tendencies are typically not prescribed for such medications. A 2013 study 26 explains that benzodiazepines “are very effective in reducing acute anxiety but are associated with problematic adverse effects when used for a long time in high doses.”

Buspirone (Buspar) is another medication in this category that has been found to be effective in GAD without leading to habit formation. Research 27 shows that it is “a non-benzodiazepine which does not cause dependency.” Buspirone has also been found to be “less sedating than benzodiazepines.” According to a scientific review 28 , buspirone is mainly used for treating GAD and is regarded as a second-line agent for treatment after selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). It is usually prescribed when patients do not respond to SSRIs or are unable to cope with the side effects. The review states “Buspirone is FDA approved for the short and long-term treatment of GAD, as well as short-term symptomatic relief of anxiety. It is as effective as benzodiazepine treatment for GAD.”

Research 29 shows that Pregabalin, a calcium modulator, is another anxiolytic agent that is effective in generalized anxiety disorder treatment in adults. Along with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), pregabalin is also considered as one of the first-line pharmacotherapies, according to a 2013 study.

C. Other antidepressants

Apart from SSRIs and SNRIs, other types of antidepressants, such as tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) & monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) may also be recommended. Although these are less commonly prescribed due to certain severe side effects, research 30 has shown that tricyclic antidepressants can be effective for generalized anxiety states. The researchers state “The onset of efficacy appears to begin at about 2 weeks or later and is probably superior to at least one well-known benzodiazepine, chlordiazepoxide, well beyond that time.” According to another 2000 study 31 , TCAs have been found to be effective in generalized anxiety disorder treatment. However, SSRIs are prescribed more “due to their greater safety and tolerability, should be the preferred choices in treating anxiety disorders.”

Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) have been found to be greatly superior to placebo in the treatment of anxiety disorders. In fact, researchers 32 have found that MAOIs tend to be more effective than TCAs in treating GAD.

3. Relaxation techniques

Various types of relaxation techniques can also help to significantly lower chronic anxiety. Relaxation techniques refer to therapeutic exercises and strategies that can help a person to reduce physical and psychological tension & anxiety. Relaxation techniques help to reduce feelings of stress and increase feelings of calm. These strategies primarily aim to reduce certain symptoms, like muscle tension, shortness of breath, increased heart rate etc. Researchers from a 2020 study 33 explain “Strategies to assist patients with relaxation have long been a hallmark component of psychotherapy; however, they can be utilized throughout healthcare environments as complementary therapies,” for stress, anxiety and depression. These techniques can be learned and applied through self-help methods or under the guidance of professionals.

According to a 2012 study 34 , “Relaxation therapy can be effective in the improvement of depression, anxiety and stress.” Another 2008 study 35 found that relaxation training has shown significant and consistent efficacy in reducing anxiety. Relaxation techniques like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation 36 and autogenic training 37 , can enable the sufferer to cope with stress and anxiety better. Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) helps in systematic desensitization and teaches the patient to consistently reduce muscle tension & experience a more relaxed state, found a 2013 research paper 38 .

Moreover, certain lifestyle habits can also help in generalized anxiety disorder treatment, such as:

  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Exercise
  • A nutritious, healthy diet
  • Biofeedback
  • A healthy sleeping routine
  • Avoiding smoking, caffeine, alcohol and drugs

These practices can not only help to elevate mood but also improve the patient’s overall mental, emotional and physical well being. In fact, one 2015 study found that Kundalini Yoga can greatly help in coping with GAD. Another 2013 study found that mindfulness meditation or Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) techniques “have a beneficial effect on anxiety symptoms in GAD and may also improve stress reactivity.” Moreover, biofeedback intervention has proved to be “effective in significantly reducing the levels of stress, anxiety, and depression” over a 4-week period, as per a recent study 39 .

Recovery From GAD Is Possible

Generalized anxiety disorder is a common mental health condition which is highly treatable. If you think you or a loved one is suffering from GAD, then make sure to consult a doctor or a mental health professional immediately. Although generalized anxiety disorder treatment can be a time-taking and complicated process, the outlook for patients is mostly positive. Treatment will not only help you overcome GAD symptoms but also help to increase your ability for day-to-day functioning and strengthen personal relationships.

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