CONVENTIONAL THERAPIES FOR GENERALIZED ANXIETY DISORDER
The good news is that treatments for generalized anxiety can be very effective. Unfortunately, many GAD sufferers, in part because of their anxious condition, are apprehensive about seeking professional help. When left untreated, the symptoms of generalized anxiety can escalate and lead to chronic insomnia, fatigue, substance abuse, and depression as well as contribute to physical illnesses such as heart disease and bowel disorders.
Bruce’s trial of several alternative strategies failed to reduce his symptoms. Yoga bored him, he was afraid of acupuncture needles, and he couldn’t relax enough for hypnosis. Because he’d already gotten over the hump of asking for help, I was able to encourage him to keep working with me.
Often the hardest step for anxious patients is making the first appointment with a mental-health professional, even though conventional treatments for generalized anxiety, including psychotherapy and medications, can be very effective. With psychological counseling, patients are able to discuss the sources
of their anxiety and gain perspective on their symptoms. This allows them to develop more successful coping strategies.
Once Bruce and I broke the ice, he began to trust me and feel more at ease. Knowing his fear of medication, my initial approach was to use talk therapy in order to help Bruce revisit his attempts at meditation and help get his symptoms under control.
I described some of the real brain effects of meditation, including the work of Harvard scientists who taught volunteers to meditate using focused attention on physical sensations such as deep breathing. The scientists found that after eight weeks, the meditating volunteers had larger volumes of grey matter in their brain’s hippocampal memory-control region. Understanding how the process can actually change neural circuits motivated Bruce to give it another try.
Bruce let me guide him through some meditation exercises and these helped calm him. I told Bruce that he should expect his mind to wander, and when it did, simply recognizing it and nonjudgmentally bringing his attention back to his breathing was enough to alter his neural circuits and reduce his anxiety. When Bruce stopped criticizing himself about his mind wandering, he became more comfortable and successful with his meditation.
We also began a course of cognitive behavioral therapy, which has been shown to be one of the most effective psychotherapies for generalized anxiety disorder. Patients need not worry that their psychotherapy will last for years and years: often short-term periods (weeks to months) of cognitive behavioral therapy are enough to help the patient learn to recognize and change thought patterns and behaviors that lead to anxiety. It helps patients to put their worries into perspective and reduce any distorted thinking.