Diagnosing and treating anxiety

Diagnosing and treating anxiety

When should you see a doctor about anxiety?

It is time to seek help for anxiety when:

  • You feel like your constant worrying is beginning to interfere with your career / work, relationships and overall lifestyle.
  • You find that you are unable to control your feelings of fear and worry and your anxiety is troubling you. Your worries don’t go away on their own and you find that your anxiety worsens over time.
  • You frequently use alcohol or drugs or have other mental health problems.
  • You are concerned that your anxiety may be linked to a physical health problem or illness.
  • You experience depression and or / have any suicidal thoughts or behaviours. If this occurs, it is strongly advised to seek immediate help from a medical professional.

A doctor (Primary healthcare provider) or mental health provider (psychologist or psychiatrist) can get anxiety under control, so it is a good idea to seek help before things escalate and become worse. It is much easier to treat if you seek help early.

How is anxiety diagnosed?

Once at your consultation your doctor (or mental health professional) will begin an evaluation by asking various questions about your symptoms and your overall medical history. He or she will then conduct a physical exam (assessing your blood pressure, heart rate, respiration rate, temperature, general appearance, as well as check your head, neck, abdomen, nerves, muscle strength, reflexes, balance, skin and nails and other physical and sensory changes).

No laboratory tests are used to diagnose an anxiety disorder. Tests will only really be used if your doctor (GP or general practitioner) feels it necessary to check for other medical illnesses causing the anxiety symptoms.

A GP will then refer you to a psychiatrist (a medical doctor who specialises in diagnosing and treating mental health conditions) or psychologist (a specialist in diagnosing and providing therapy or counselling for mental health conditions) following an initial assessment and physical exam. Psychiatrists and psychologists will then use a specially designed interview (assessment) during your consultation, along with any other assessment tools to evaluate the probability of an anxiety disorder, and if so, what type.

Your psychological assessment or evaluation will involve describing your thoughts, feelings and behaviour. Other assessment tools may involve a DSM-5 (diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders) to assist with the diagnosis process by comparing symptoms and your interview assessment.

A diagnosis is based on the report which follows this assessment and covers the intensity of the anxiety, duration of the symptoms (including problems with daily functioning caused by the symptoms), and the doctor’s observations of attitude and behaviour during the consultation. The degree of dysfunction will assist the specialist with determining a specific anxiety disorder.

Young woman receiving psychotherapy counselling.

Anxiety treatments and medications

Treatment typically takes on two forms – psychotherapy and medications. Many benefit from a combination of the two, but it can take a little trial and error to find the plan that will best work for you. Other things that work well in combination with therapy and medications are dietary and lifestyle changes, as well as relaxation therapy.

  • Psychotherapy: 'Talk therapy' or psychological counselling involves working with a therapist to reduce symptoms of anxiety. Most mental health professionals recommend cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which can be a very effective treatment for anxiety. CBT focusses on teaching you how to improve your symptoms with specific skills, which assist in gradually enabling you to return to normal activities and behavioural patterns. CBT includes exposure therapy which gradually introduces encounters with objects and situational triggers as a way to build confidence in better managing reactions. This may sound incredibly scary if you have an anxiety disorder, but it is done in a responsible, caring way that will assist you overcoming your fears.
  • Medications: There are several types that may be recommended to alleviate symptoms, and depending on the type of disorder you are diagnosed with. Medication treatment will also depend on other mental or physical health issues you may be experiencing. Anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications are effective drug treatments. In limited circumstances a doctor may prescribe a type of sedative for short-term relief of anxiety symptoms. Other medications include anticonvulsant and low-dose antipsychotics. As with any medication, there are benefits, risks and side-effects of using these drugs. You should work very closely with your doctor in taking medications and managing the dosages for effective relief.
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