Treatment options for generalized anxiety disorder

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Generalized anxiety disorder can really affect your everyday life, and often lasts a long time. But there are a number of different treatment approaches that can help you learn to better manage your anxiety and lead a normal life again. Some medications are also effective.

People who have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) aren't afraid of specific threats or of particular animals, things or situations. Instead, they live in almost constant fear of nearly anything – even of fear itself. For this reason, doctors call it "generalized" anxiety. This can take a great emotional toll and also cause a number of physical symptoms such as drowsiness, tense muscles and a racing heart. But various treatments can help to reduce the anxiety down to a tolerable level.

Unlike other kinds of anxiety disorders, generalized anxiety disorder often first develops in middle age. But generalized anxiety disorder can affect people of all ages.

What can you do yourself?

Many people with generalized anxiety disorder don't even think of going to see a doctor. They try to manage their fears on their own, for example using books or information from the internet. Some learn relaxation techniques, such as progressive muscle relaxation, autogenic training, breathing exercises or yoga. There is a lack of research on the effectiveness of these kinds of strategies for managing anxiety disorders on your own. Relaxation techniques are often used in psychological treatments, but it isn't known how effective they are when used alone.

Some people try herbal sedatives like valerian, lavender, chamomile or passion flower. There hasn't been much good-quality research on these products either. Many people assume that herbal remedies are better tolerated and safer than other kinds of medicine. But they can also have side effects and may influence the effects of other medication.

Also, if you try to manage your anxiety on your own, it might take a long time before you seek professional help. Only then can you start having treatments that have been proven to work, such as psychological treatment and certain medications.

What happens in psychological treatments?

There are various psychological treatments for generalized anxiety disorder. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the best studied and most effective.

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy has benefits that go beyond just helping to reduce anxiety. It can also help with the symptoms of depression, for example, which may accompany generalized anxiety disorder. Because CBT involves directly confronting your fears, the therapy itself can sometimes be quite distressing. Generally speaking, the side effects of psychological treatments haven't been well studied.

In Germany, CBT is offered by behavioral therapists and covered by statutory health insurers. It typically involves weekly sessions over several weeks or months. Depending on the circumstances and the technological set-up, these kinds of sessions can also be held virtually, for example as a video call.

Cognitive behavioral therapy has two parts: a “cognitive” part that deals with thoughts and feelings, and one that deals with behavior.

The goal of the cognitive approach is to change thought patterns that trigger anxiety by learning to

  • identify unrealistic anxieties and fears and challenge them,
  • assess the actual likelihood and consequences of the things that trigger the anxiety, and
  • cope with insecurities.

One example of thought patterns that can make you feel anxious is “catastrophizing” – immediately jumping to extreme and exaggerated conclusions about the extent of a possible threat as soon as anything unsettling happens. By detecting these kinds of thoughts with the help of a therapist, you can try to get rid of them or find a way to better cope with them. Overall, cognitive behavioral therapy helps you to be more aware of your thoughts and control them better.

The second part of the therapy involves slowly lowering your level of anxiety in certain situations and changing your behavior. The fear is confronted in order to gradually overcome it. For example, a working mother who constantly calls the kindergarten in order to check up on her child may try to gradually reduce the number of calls she places. To make it easier to change your behavior, the therapy also involves learning techniques to keep calm – like breathing exercises or relaxation techniques. You can also write down your feelings in a digital diary, for instance on a computer, tablet or cellphone. It's also possible to use a virtual guide to relaxation exercises at home, at a time that best fits your daily routine.

Other psychological treatment approaches

Other types of psychological treatment focus more on trying to find the possible causes of the anxiety, such as traumatic childhood events. There hasn't been much good research on the effectiveness of these approaches in people with generalized anxiety disorder. The few studies that have compared them with cognitive behavioral therapy suggest that these “psychodynamic” therapies aren't as helpful as cognitive behavioral therapy.

What kinds of drug treatments are available?

There are a number of different medications for the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder. Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are one commonly used treatment.

Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs):

Selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors are antidepressants. They can relieve anxiety symptoms and help to reduce the symptoms of that often accompany anxiety disorders.

It usually takes 2 to 6 weeks for SSRIs to start reducing the anxiety. They are only effective in some people, though, so it may be necessary to try various medications. Escitalopram and paroxetine are two SSRIs for people with generalized anxiety disorder that are well studied and have been approved in Germany.

If the symptoms improve when you take SSRIs, doctors recommend that you keep on taking them. If you stop too early, the anxiety symptoms could come back. To prevent that from happening, doctors recommend taking the medicine for 6 to 12 months and then gradually reducing the dose. In some situations it may make sense to take the medication for longer than that. It is sometimes difficult to keep taking the medication regularly. One reason might be the side effects, but people also tend to stop taking the medication when they start feeling better.

Possible side effects of SSRIs include nausea, insomnia and sexual problems. Some people have less interest in sex or can't have an orgasm. Men may only ejaculate small amounts of semen, or not ejaculate at all. But most people don't have any side effects.

It can be hard to tell whether insomnia or nausea are actually caused by the medication because these problems are quite common in general. The body often "gets used to" the medication. Side effects usually occur only during the first few weeks of use, so it may be worth waiting rather than stopping the treatment as soon as you notice side effects.

Other drugs

A number of other medications can be used to treat generalized anxiety disorder. But many of them are generally only considered if treatment with SSRIs doesn't work or isn't possible for certain reasons.

  • Serotonin–norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs): This group of drugs includes duloxetine and venlafaxine. They have a similar effect to SSRIs.
  • Pregabalin is mainly used to treat nerve-related pain, but it has also been approved for the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder. Several studies have shown that this medication is effective. It often causes dizziness and tiredness, though.
  • Opipramol: There is a lack of good-quality research on the effectiveness of this antidepressant. For this reason, it is only very rarely used.
  • Buspirone can relieve anxiety, but there has been less research on it than on other medications. So it's usually only used if, for example, SSRIs aren't effective or aren't well tolerated. The possible side effects of buspirone include drowsiness, nausea and sleep problems.
  • Hydroxyzine: This antihistamine can also probably reduce the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder. There has been less research on it than on other drugs, though, so it's hardly ever used.
  • Benzodiazepines are sedatives that also help to relieve anxiety. They start working quickly, but there is a risk of becoming dependent on them after just a few weeks of use. For this reason, aren't recommended for the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder.

Research has shown that certain medications, including some that are used to treat , are effective in the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder. But they have not been approved for this purpose. Doctors only prescribe them if all of the other treatments haven't helped ().

Only relatively few studies in this area have directly compared medications with each other. There is no that any of the medications has clear advantages over the others. But because the various drugs can have different effects in different people, it may be worth trying out different medications.

Which treatment is most suitable?

When deciding whether to have psychological treatment, use medication or combine the two, your personal preference and individual needs will play a big role. The right kind of psychological treatment can be very effective and help you to overcome your anxiety. But it takes a lot of motivation and determination, and you often have to wait a long time to get an appointment. Depending on your individual situation and the severity of the disorder, it might be a good idea to start taking medication first. Sometimes it's not really possible to begin psychological treatment until medication has been used to at least partially relieve the symptoms.

Some people don't want to start taking antidepressants because they're afraid they might end up becoming dependent on them. But – unlike with certain painkillers, sedatives and sleeping pills – you can't become dependent on antidepressants. Others see taking tablets to cope with their problems as a sign of weakness. There's no reason to feel ashamed of taking medication to treat a mental illness, though. Medicine can be helpful, and in some cases even necessary, when trying to overcome deep-seated anxiety.

Regardless of what you decide to do, there are medications and psychological treatments that can help you cope with generalized anxiety disorder and start living a normal life again.

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IQWiG health information is written with the aim of helping people understand the advantages and disadvantages of the main treatment options and health care services.

Because IQWiG is a German institute, some of the information provided here is specific to the German health care system. The suitability of any of the described options in an individual case can be determined by talking to a doctor. informedhealth.org can provide support for talks with doctors and other medical professionals, but cannot replace them. We do not offer individual consultations.

Our information is based on the results of good-quality studies. It is written by a team of health care professionals, scientists and editors, and reviewed by external experts. You can find a detailed description of how our health information is produced and updated in our methods.

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Please note that we do not provide individual advice on matters of health. You can read about where to find help and support in Germany in our information “How can I find self-help groups and information centers?

Updated on July 7, 2021
Next planned update: 2024

Authors/Publishers:

Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG, Germany)

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