So your doctor says you have anxiety. Now what?
Step 1: Don’t ignore it. Learn why it’s important to listen when your doctor says you have anxiety, and take steps to manage it.
We probably don’t need to tell you that the world is stressful these days. Unfortunately, that stress is taking a toll on our mental health. A 2022 study found a big rise in the rate  [CG3] of Americans who reported depression or anxiety symptoms: The number jumped from about 11% in 2019 to nearly 40% in 2021.
It’s such a concern that for the first time, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force is recommending that doctors screen all adults under age 65 for anxiety.
That’s not great news. But there’s a silver lining. “There’s better recognition of anxiety and depression. And people are more open to talking about it,” says David Tzall, Psy.D. Tzall is a licensed psychologist in New York City. As a result, more of us are seeking help and getting the support and treatment we need to feel better.
Whatever approach you take to ease anxiety, it’s important that you have one, Tzall stresses. That’s because anxiety isn’t just a mental health issue. Research suggests that people with high levels of anxiety are more likely to develop physical health issues, such as high blood pressure. So whether a screening by your primary care provider (PCP) suggests you have anxiety, or a self-assessment does, taking action is vital. Here are some helpful next steps.
Learn the difference between screening and assessment.
An anxiety screening isn’t an official diagnosis. It’s a quick way to see if you need to be evaluated by a mental health professional, says Tzall. Your provider will ask about your thoughts and feelings. They’ll also look for symptoms such as:
- A racing heart.
- Trouble sleeping.
- Feeling nervous or restless.
If you have these symptoms, your provider will likely screen you for other medical conditions with similar symptoms that may need treatment. Common ones include:
- Heart disease.
- Lung disease.
Once they are ruled out, your provider can refer you to a mental health specialist. It’s usually a psychologist or psychiatrist. They’ll give you a formal evaluation and make a diagnosis. If you do have clinical anxiety, it’s time to get the support you need to feel better.
Find the right therapist.
Several types of mental health specialists can help you, including:
- Psychiatrists (M.D.s).
- Psychologists (Ph.D.s or Psy.D.s).
- Social workers.
- Professional counselors.
“It all comes down to fit. You might meet someone who looks great on paper, but you just don’t feel comfortable with them,” says Tzall. It’s a good idea to talk to a few before you make a choice.
Not sure where to start looking? Ask your doctor or loved ones for a referral. A digital health management app such as Wellframe is also a great resource. Many health plans offer Wellframe as a benefit to members at no extra cost. It can connect you with your care advocate, who can connect you with an in-network mental health provider.
You can also find therapists online. Try:
Whomever you choose, just make sure they’re licensed to work in your state. To do that, find their license number by searching online or asking the therapist’s office. Then look it up on the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards website (ASPPB.net/LicenseLookup).
Wellframe can connect you with your care advocate to find an in-network provider on your own time. To find out if your plan offers Wellframe, email your human resources department.
Try different lifestyle approaches.
Practicing certain habits can be a simple but powerful tool to help ease anxiety, says Tzall. Here are some science-backed ones to try.
- Exercise. It helps your brain produce chemicals that work to ease anxiety. Aim for a combination of cardio and strength training for 45 to 60 minutes at least 3 times a week. In a study, this approach to exercise was shown to significantly lower anxiety after 3 months. One more great option: yoga. A 2020 study in JAMA Psychiatry found that 54% of people who practiced yoga for 3 months reported significant improvement in their anxiety symptoms
- Cut back on sugar and unhealthy fats. Diets high in fat and sugar have been linked with higher levels of anxiety.
- Get social support. If you have anxiety, you may find that you don’t want to be around people. But a strong support network is key. “Just having someone you trust be there for you, and listen to you, is really important for mental health,” Tzall says. A recent study found, for example, that having high levels of social support during the COVID-19 pandemic was linked to better mental health, including lower anxiety.
- Set boundaries. These are limits that you set with other people that help define what’s okay or not okay with you. “One of the pieces of advice I give to all my patients with anxiety is to do ‘quiet quitting.’ At the end of the workday, put your job away. Focus on other things that bring you joy, like your family,” says Tzall. “It’s very important to have an identity outside of work, and to be able to take part in different activities that bring you joy and help you decompress.”
Think about medications.
Medications won’t cure your anxiety, but they may help ease your symptoms. Especially in the early stages while you’re waiting for therapy and lifestyle approaches to kick in. Options include:
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). These are a type of antidepressant that raises levels of the brain chemical serotonin.
- Benzodiazepines. They help calm your nervous system and provide short-term relief.
- Beta blockers. These are medications to treat high blood pressure. They help lower physical symptoms of anxiety such as shaking and heart palpitations.
Talk to your doctor about whether medication is right for you.
To learn more ways to get the most out of your healthcare, reach out to your health insurance provider.
The Bottom Line
If you suspect you might have anxiety, you probably do. And you deserve to give those feelings attention and get relief. Taking steps to ease your anxiety can give you a better quality of life — and perhaps even a longer time to enjoy it.
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