How to Get Rid of Anxiety Fast

Barbara O. Rothbaum, Ph.D., has been working with people who have post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, since 1986, not long after the condition became an official diagnosis back in 1980. As executive director of the Emory Healthcare Veterans Program and the Trauma and Anxiety Recovery Program at the Emory University School of Medicine, she has seen it all—the jumpy, sweaty, can’t-breathe panic and near fainting that happen when the surf washes over someone’s waist and they’re sure they’ll be sucked under; the horror of impending abuse or trauma that flashes up with the click of a key in the lock. It’s never pretty and often doesn’t end well. “Weekly therapy is like ripping off a scab,” she says. “In the week between sessions, the scab heals a little—but you know you have to go back and experience the pain of ripping it off again. Who wants to do that?”

Nobody. It’s why most PTSD treatment programs have a high dropout rate. Hell, it’s why a lot of those suffering from any kind of anxiety—whether it’s a serious fear of flying or an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that keeps you from using public restrooms—don’t go to therapy at all. “Many people with anxiety avoid therapy because avoidance is part of the problem,” Rothbaum says. It’s also why she and a handful of other practitioners are getting radical, shortening the course of therapy for conditions like PTSD, OCD, panic attacks, and certain phobias—sometimes to three weeks, other times three hours.

They’re practicing a new, more intense version of exposure therapy. Rather than scheduling weekly hour-long sessions to work on this, a therapist might spend three hours every day for three weeks incrementally increasing a patient’s exposure to their worst fear. A guy with a debilitating aversion to germs might eat from a shared tub of popcorn with no hand sanitizer in sight. Later that week, he might be asked to put his hands on the floor of a public bathroom without washing them afterward. This approach is short. It’s intense. Adopters say it’s like HIIT for your emotions, and science is finding that it gets the job done.

Inside Anxiety Boot Camp

It may be news to many therapists and anxious people, but condensed courses of treatment for anxiety have been around since the ’70s, the brainchild of Swedish researcher Lars-Göran Öst. As a young psychologist, he noticed that his phobic patients didn’t need the 10 to 12 sessions that were typical at the time; he was eliminating their phobias in just four or five. It wasn’t a superpower that he alone had; other therapists could get these results if they were willing to revise their treatment.

“Most patients come in for 50 minutes and make some progress, but when they come back the following week, they don’t start their second session where they ended the first—their anxiety has ratcheted back up,” says Öst, now a professor emeritus at Stockholm University. By using intense exposure therapy—coaching a patient with a fear of elevators into an elevator, for example, or letting a spider crawl all over someone with arachnophobia—he was able to disprove his patients’ beliefs about what catastrophic thing would happen if they came in direct contact with whatever it was they feared—usually in two to three hours, but often in as little as an hour.

To prove its effectiveness, Öst conducted a randomized controlled trial comparing his method to standard cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and found that not only did his approach work as well, but 90 percent of his patients who were undergoing intense exposure therapy were either much improved or completely recovered after just one session. That’s the kind of time frame even the most overcommitted people can work with.

Practitioners seeking a better way to help their patients have launched programs based on this research. For instance, Rothbaum’s therapy for veterans with PTSD requires only two weeks of intense work. The short time commitment has helped lower the dropout rate to about 10 percent from its usual 25 to 50, she says. Thomas H. Ollendick, Ph.D., director of the Child Study Center at Virginia Tech, successfully treats kids with OCD in four days and those with specific phobias (like a fear of dogs or heights) in a single three-hour session.

Nobody Calls HIIT for Anxiety Easy

In theory, any practitioner trained in CBT should be able to work intensively with people who have anxiety disorders. In reality, inertia and scheduling get in the way. “Despite no evidence that one 50-minute therapy session each week is the best way to do psychotherapy, it’s the standard,” says Ollendick. “We are unsure how this standard evolved.” Scheduling two or three hours at a time over the course of a few weeks is tough for most practitioners, although docs say patients overwhelmingly prefer it.

And the work itself is hard. The majority of therapists don’t practice exposure therapy because it’s difficult logistically (how can you treat a fear of elevators if you’re in a building without an elevator?), because it makes them feel uncomfortable (exposure therapy is challenging, for both the patient and the doc, says Ollendick), or simply because they’re used to the standard approach. “A lot of therapists will talk to you about things unrelated to your anxiety, and while that may feel good, it’s probably not helping the symptoms you’re dealing with,” says Rothbaum. Then there’s the money thing. Many insurance companies don’t cover these intensive outpatient treatments, which can cost upwards of $2,500 a week, even if it would mean fewer hours of therapy than the traditional model.

Still, there’s hope. At the forefront of intense exposure therapy are professors and researchers, teaching its methods to their students and publishing studies about the efficacy of this HIIT-style approach—two important steps necessary for it to really spread. All the quick-results experts say, however, that CBT delivered in the traditional weekly format can still be very helpful for anxiety. “In the end, we know that learning to feel less anxious about your anxiety is key,” says clinical psychologist Jonathan Abramowitz, Ph.D., of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, no matter how you get there. “But it’s important to note that it doesn’t have to take a lifetime on a therapist’s couch to get that lesson.”

Warp Speed Anxiety Training: Is It Right for You?

If all you hit all these criteria, you could be a good candidate for a condensed program of intensive therapy.

  • You’ve got OCD, panic disorder, or a specific phobia. There’s no research yet, though, showing that these short, intense treatments work for generalized anxiety disorder.
  • You’re motivated to face your anxiety. This approach works by incrementally increasing exposure to what you fear most, so you have to be committed to experiencing the thing that really freaks you out. “You’ve got to be all in,” says Abramowitz. “Otherwise you’re going to spend a lot of time making yourself miserable, and in the long run it’s not going to help you.”
  • You’re not psychotic and you’re able to steer clear of booze and drugs. This type of therapy is difficult and can bring up a lot of bad memories, says Rothbaum. “We want to make sure patients feel safe when they’re doing this work, not on the brink of a breakdown. And we don’t want you slipping into old coping habits and using substances to dampen the distress that will undoubtedly surface.”

via How to Get Rid of Anxiety Fast