Anxiety disorders are the most common category of mental illnesses in the United States. Millions of people experience anxiety and panic disorders each year. Without treatment, anxiety disorders can significantly impair your social and occupational functioning, as well as your enjoyment of your life. However, there are several treatment options for anxiety disorders, including medications and psychotherapy options.
But what if you can’t take anxiety medications or you would like to avoid them? There are other treatment options, and medications may not be necessary for everyone seeking relief from this mental health disorder.
Learn more about anxiety disorders and the alternatives to treating them without the use of medications.
Why Would Someone Avoid Anxiety Medications?
Medications can be extremely helpful for people with mental health disorders. They can make a huge difference in making your mental health problems more manageable. But anxiety medications aren’t for everyone, and there may be several reasons to avoid taking them. The reasons may depend on the types of medications you would like to avoid or if you want to avoid taking any long-term medications.
Here are some reasons some people prefer to avoid using medications to treat anxiety:
- Conflicting medications. Taking muscle relaxants, seizure medications, and other central nervous system depressants could make certain anxiety medications dangerous, including benzodiazepines.
- You need to be alert. Depressant medications may be dangerous if you need to be alert throughout the day. Some anxiety medications can cause drowsiness and sedation, making driving and other tasks dangerous. Some would prefer not to experience drowsiness during the day in general.
- You want to avoid dependence. Most anxiety medications are relatively safe and well-tolerated, but long-term use increases your risk of chemical dependence. Benzodiazepines can cause dependence after a few weeks of consistent use.
- You’d rather explore other options first. You may not need medications if psychotherapies and other options can effectively address your anxiety.
- Health concerns. A few conditions could be worsened or complicated by using certain medications for anxiety. For instance, sleep apnea is a disorder that causes irregular breathing while you sleep. Benzodiazepines can slow your breathing, which can make sleep apnea more dangerous.
What Medications Are Used to Treat Anxiety?
Before you rule out medications when looking for anxiety treatment options, it’s important to understand what drugs are used to treat anxiety and how they are different. In many cases, the first option doctors will try an SSRI medication. SSRIs (or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are antidepressants that increase the levels of serotonin in your brain. Though antidepressants are used to treat depression, they can also help ease anxiety symptoms. Since serotonin can help improve your mood, it may also help ease anxiety symptoms.
For severe anxiety and panic disorders that antidepressants can’t effectively manage, benzodiazepines may be used. Benzodiazepines are a group of central nervous system depressants used to treat anxiety, panic, sleep disorders, seizures, and muscle spasms. Benzos are generally safe when used as directed by a doctor, but they can cause chemical dependence and addiction when used consistently for several weeks in a row.
Treating Anxiety with Psychotherapy
Many people struggling with mental health concerns can benefit from certain forms of psychotherapy. Speaking to a therapist or psychologist can help you gain deeper insight into yourself, your mental health disorder, triggers, and healthy coping skills. Sometimes, therapy is needed alongside medication. Additionally, if your insurance covers anxiety medication, you may be eligible for other mental health services.
Of course, therapy can’t make your anxiety disappear overnight. Addressing your mental health concerns may take work, whether it involves medication, therapy, or both. There are many psychotherapy methods to explore, and any combination can be helpful in coping with your anxiety disorder.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of talk therapy in which you work with a therapist to recognize your negative thinking patterns and respond to stressful situations more effectively. It treats various psychological and behavioral problems, from anxiety to substance use disorder.
CBT has been proven to be effective in treating anxiety disorders. The cognitive portion helps identify how your thoughts relate to your anxious thoughts and feelings. The behavioral portion helps you develop more positive responses to your triggers.
By learning what triggers your anxiety, you can develop the skills to cope with stressful situations. For example, a common coping mechanism taught in CBT is restructuring, in which you confront your negative thoughts and replace them with positive alternatives.
For example, if you worry that your friends don’t actually like you, you can challenge that thought by demanding evidence for the assumption. Maybe the only evidence is that they didn’t call you back. While it can be frustrating to be left hanging, it’s highly unlikely that they don’t like you. To replace that negative thought, think of more likely and positive alternatives. Maybe they were at work and couldn’t take a personal call or simply left their phone on silent in another room. This will help you to combat your anxious thoughts and deal with stress more effectively.
Exposure therapy is a type of therapy that helps people face their fears directly. It’s often used to treat mental health problems that involve extreme fears, such as phobias, panic disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The goal of exposure therapy is to control your triggers in a controlled environment so that you can deal with them more effectively when you encounter them in normal situations. For example, if you have a phobia of snakes, your exposure therapy may involve being near or handling them. On the other hand, exposure therapy for anxiety will involve role playing and talk therapy.
To begin, you and your therapist may explore some ways to help you cope with your anxious feelings. Then you’ll explain what triggers your anxiety and rank them in order of how strongly they affect you. During the exposure portion, you may go down the list and talk about your experiences and how you feel about them. Your therapist will provide practical ways to relax and cope with your anxious thoughts and feelings in those specific situations.
Dialectical Behavioral Therapy
Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy initially developed to treat a mental health problem called borderline personality disorder. However, it has been adapted to be used to treat many mental health problems, including anxiety and panic disorders. DBT is similar to CBT, but it uses techniques from mindfulness practices. It can help you stay in the moment and accept your current situation without judgment. DBT can help you control emotions, which can be useful in responding to anxious thoughts and even panic attacks.
Several factors in your everyday life can help or hurt your efforts to deal with anxiety problems. In addition to other treatment options, there are some lifestyle changes that can help ease anxiety symptoms. Here are some lifestyle changes that could help you manage your anxiety symptoms:
Get Enough Sleep
Sleep is a major factor in both physical and mental health. Sleep problems can cause obesity, heart problems, poor concentration, fatigue, and other issues. Sleeplessness can make problems seem unmanageable, which can worsen anxiety symptoms and contribute to panic attacks. Anxiety can also make it difficult to sleep, causing a cycle of worsening anxiety and sleep problems.
Getting enough sleep can help increase your energy levels and ease some mental health symptoms. Improving your sleep can be tricky, but you can start by paying attention to sleep hygiene, a concept that involves good sleep habits. Sleep hygiene involves keeping a consistent sleep schedule, making sleep a priority, creating a nightly routine, and avoiding using your bed to watch movies or scroll on social media.
Exercise is on most lists of healthy lifestyle habits. For many, it has become a cliche, but staying active is important for both physical and mental health. Regular exercise can help with chronic pain problems and improve your overall health, which limits a major source of stress. However, exercise can directly influence your mental health. Exercise can release endorphins and raise serotonin levels, which can make you feel good and lift your mood. Physical activity can also help give you something to focus on to clear your mind and slow down an overactive brain.
Limit Stimulant Use
Stimulants increase activity in your central nervous system, which can make anxiety and panic disorder symptoms worse. If you’re taking prescription stimulants like amphetamines, you may need to ask your doctor about alternative treatment options. Most people encounter stimulants in the form of caffeine. Caffeine intake affects people differently.
While some people aren’t significantly affected, other people can feel jittery, nervous, and anxious after drinking a cup of coffee or two. Cutting down on stimulant intake will reveal if it has any effects on your anxiety symptoms. You may feel tired or even irritable the first few days after you stop drinking caffeine, but you may start to see positive results by week two.