Often the first thing I'm asked by those suffering from anxiety is whether it can be cured. But that brings up an interesting question - one that few people seem to consider:
Do you really want to be free of anxiety?
People often claim they want to be completely anxiety free, but anxiety is actually an important tool for staying safe, and an automatic function of your body's natural fight or flight response. You don't want to cure anxiety entirely. Rather, you just want to cure unprompted anxiety that does not serve you.
What it Means to Cure Anxiety
An anxiety cure isn't something that prevents all anxiety from occurring. An anxiety cure is something that increases your own ability to naturally cope with anxiety and stress that occur in the absence of anxiety producing stimuli.
Anxiety is linked to an important biological mechanism called the fight or flight system. The fight or flight system is a reflex where your body receives a flood of hormones and physical changes as a response to danger. It's what would allow you to run away from a predator or increase your likelihood of winning an unexpected fight. It’s essentially your brain sensing danger and sounding the alarm bells so that your body is adequately prepared to respond.
But in some cases that system malfunctions. For example, the fight or flight system may be activated even when no danger is present. That’s often what happens in people with anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders may be diagnosed if your anxiety is so severe and occurs so frequently that it seriously interferes with your ability to function at home, school or work.
The exact reason explaining why one person develops an anxiety disorder and another doesn’t isn’t entirely known at this point. However, anxiety disorders can be attributed to a combination of the following factors:
- Brain Chemistry
- Behavioral Reinforcement
- Poor Coping Ability
When you struggle with regular anxiety, whether it's generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, obsessive compulsive disorder, etc., you're suffering from a fight or flight system that is activating at the wrong time for the wrong reasons, often in ways that cause you significant distress.
That's why many people want to cure their anxiety. But that's also why you _never_ want something that literally cures anxiety to the point where your fight or flight system is no longer active. If you didn't have your fight or flight system, you would be at risk for serious danger because your body wouldn't tell you when you're in a dangerous situation or help you get out of that situation safely.
In other words, you need a way to prevent anxiety disorders, while still allowing you to experience anxiety and fear if you actually do encounter risks or danger. To manage your anxiety disorder, then, it’s necessary to find ways of coping with the effects of an overactive fight or flight reflex - i.e. your anxiety symptoms. In doing so, over time, your fight or flight response ought to be less sensitive to triggers, meaning that your tendency to anxiety will have been reduced.
The Definition of an "Anxiety Cure," - What Really Works?
When we speak about effectively curing anxiety disorders, you need to keep in mind that there is no quick fix or “magic wand” cure. This is because you need a way of treating anxiety that prevents your fight or flight system from becoming activated unnecessarily.
This is why anxiety medications are generally ill advised. Anxiety medications cause two issues that interfere with your ability to get a true anxiety cure:
- Anxiety medications can cause you to not experience anxiety at all, often accompanied by an increase in fatigue. Since you’re sedated this can be dangerous (you’re advised to avoid driving, for example), and the added fatigue and side effects only increase the discomfort without actually "curing" your anxiety.
- Anxiety medications reduce your need to learn and adopt effective coping strategies. Remember, a medication - since it doesn't cure anxiety - will only work for as long as you're taking the medication. In the meantime, you’ll be precluded the opportunity to develop and practice your own coping strategies - such as those that you might learn with a therapist or in an anxiety treatment program. Since coping is a "use it or lose it" ability, the end result is that when you finally do stop taking the medication your anxiety will come back and you may have an even harder time coping with anxiety in the future.
Now, there are still times when medication is necessary - especially if your anxiety is so severe that you need immediate intervention and you simply cannot work with other options at the moment. But even then, you should never take a medication alone without another complementary form of treatment (such as therapy). It will not provide you with the solution you're looking for.
Which Anxiety Cures Do Work
Anything that only relieves anxiety temporarily without allowing you to develop your own coping skills and develop your self-confidence is not a true anxiety cure. This includes ‘self-medicating’ with alcohol or drugs. Some use herbal supplements or holistic options, but there is not enough reliable evidence out there to suggest that these are effective in and of themselves.
What you need is something that teaches your brain how to cope with stress better, and how to make sure that your anxiety doesn't overwhelm you. The best options for this are therapy, or some type of treatment that can help you reestablish your ability to cope with stress. Popular, evidence-based psychotherapy options for anxiety disorders include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Psychodynamic Therapy.