Anxious? When to Seek an Expert Opinion

Everybody has experienced some measure of anxiety. It is normal to feel overwhelmed, worried, nervous, and scared every now and then. However, for some people, anxiety is a diagnosable mental health condition that requires treatment from a mental health expert. Hence, a question many people may have is when to seek professional help versus managing one's own symptoms. Generally speaking, you should seek help when your anxiety and symptoms begin to affect your day-to-day functioning (e.g., work, school, health, and relationships) and cause significant distress. You should also think about seeking treatment when the anxiety lasts for an extended period of time or when friends and family notice a change in your behavior.

Who Are the Experts?

There are a number of different professionals who are considered mental health experts. Their titles vary depending on their education, which reflects their training and how they treat anxiety and other conditions.

  • Primary Care Practicioner (doctor or nurse practicioner) - medical professionals who see patients on a regular basis for physical exams and general medical needs. They may prescribe medication to treat anxiety symptoms or refer you to a specialist (e.g., psychiatrist, psychologist, or therapist). Primary care practicioners generally do not provide therapy.
  • Psychiatrist - a medical doctor who specializes in treating psychiatric disorders. Psychiatrists provide diagnosis and prescribe medication to treat mental illness. A psychiatrist typically does not provide therapy, but if they do it can be expensive. A psychiatrist may provide a referral to a therapist or work in a group setting with therapists.
  • Psychologist - a psychologist is a type of therapist who has a Ph.D. in psychology. While psychologists are doctors, they are not medical doctors and cannot prescribe medication. A psychologist is highly trained to diagnose mental illness (sometimes using tests and questionaires) and to treat mental illness with therapeutic techniques. In some states, psychologists may also practice with a master's degree.
  • Therapist (clinical social worker or counselor) - similar to a psychologist, clinical social workers and counselors are trained to diagnose mental illness and to provide therapy. In order to work at the therapist level, social workers and counselors must have a master's degree or higher.

Types of Treatment and What to Expect

There are essentially two types of treatment for anxiety: medication and therapy.

Medication is effective in treating a number of anxiety disorders and may be prescribed by a primary care practitioner or a psychiatrist. Medications used to treat anxiety disorders commonly include the groups of drugs known as benzodiazepines (e.g., Ativan, Clonpin, and Xanax) and antidepressants (e.g., the SSRIs which include Prozac, Zoloft, Lexapro, and Celexa).

Therapy is also very effective in treating anxiety disorders. The most common type of therapy used to treat anxiety disorders is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which has proven to be as effective as medication in a number of published research studies. CBT helps people identify troubling thought patterns and behaviors and to learn to adapt to more healthy thoughts and behaviors.

There are pros and cons to both types of treatments. Medications are usually faster acting but may have side effects. Some of the benzodiazepines also have the potential for addiction. Furthermore, symptoms of anxiety may return after one discontinues using medication. Therapy on the other hand may take longer to alleviate symptoms, but the results are usually longer lasting. Using a combination of medication and therapy is generally the most effective method of treatment.

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