Does Anxiety Go Away on its Own?

Brian O'Sullivan, M.S., LMFTAnxiety

This article is for informational use only, should not be considered clinical advice, and does not establish a patient-therapist relationship.

Asking if anxiety will go away on it’s own is like asking your doctor to predict how long you’ll live. There are an infinite number of variables to consider; it’s impossible to know.

Anxiety is also dependent on a number of different, complex variables. And just like our lifespan, some variables we have control over, while others are completely up to chance.

There are likely other questions that are driving this main question: “Does anxiety go away on its own”:

In this article I will help answer these important questions, explore what factors contribute to anxiety, and what we can do about our anxiety.

How Serious is my anxiety?

Diagnosis in the psychology field vs the medical field are very different. In the medical world a diagnosis plays out something like this:

  1. Leg hurts
  2. Go to the doctor
  3. Take an x-ray
  4. Find out it’s fractured
  5. Treat it

In psychology, diagnosis is far more subjective. It’s dependent entirely on a clients’ self-report rather than objective, measurable, and observable factors.

If you look through the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the common thread between most diagnoses is the question, “How much are your symptoms interfering in your day-to-day life.”

In psychology, we call this functioning. That is, how well is a client able to function in society.

So, how serious is your anxiety? Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Is anxiety causing negative impacts on your relationships?
  • Is anxiety negatively impacting your career?
  • Is anxiety negatively impacting important core needs:
    • Preparing healthy meals
    • Getting enough exercise
    • Getting enough sleep
  • Is anxiety causing regular muscle tension?
  • Do you notice yourself being more irritable, fatigued, restless, or are you having difficulty concentrating?
  • Do you find yourself preoccupied with imagined scenarios and worry?

More thoughts on diagnosis…

It’s scary thinking about the possibility of being diagnosed. And this fear can prevent people from reaching out for help, or if they do, cause them to minimize and not fully disclose important information to their therapist.

In the short-term, this might feel comfortable and safe. However, In the long-term, your progress will likely be very limited. 

Diagnosis is there to help guide the direction of your therapy. It also exists because of insurance. That’s it. 

Diagnosis is not there to label you. Or judge you. And a good clinician will be focused on your goals, forming a plan to reach those goals, and helping you along the way. That is to say, a good clinician will not be problem focused or diagnosis focused. 

Do I need to be concerned about my anxiety?

This is a very simple answer. If you feel like it’s negatively impacting your life (no matter how little or how much), I highly encourage you address it with a professional your trust.

Should I seek a professional for my anxiety?

The earlier you addresses your concerns, the less time you’ll need to spend in therapy and the less anxiety will negatively impact your life. 

Unfortunately, many people wait. They don’t want to be diagnosed. They fear of the stigma associated with a possible diagnosis. They convince themselves they don’t have the time for therapy. Or they simply prefer to try and go it alone. So, they go it alone.

Then they come in when they’re forced to address it. They can’t go to work anymore, their spouse left them because of their drug/alcohol use, or they’re not experiencing anymore joy in their lives. 

Though it’s never too late to address your anxiety, the earlier the better. 

How long does anxiety take to treat?

This is very much dependent on number of different variables:

  • How intense your anxiety is
  • How much your anxiety is impacting your day-to-day life
  • How long you’ve been dealing with anxiety
  • How consistent you are with coming to therapy
  • Your relationship with your therapist
  • The experience/expertise of your therapist

There’s a wide range. I think you can generally expect at least 5 to 10 session for lower levels of anxiety. And 25 sessions or more for anxiety that has been chronic and severally impacting a client’s  day-to-day life. 

It’s very important that clients are consistent with showing to therapy. Sporadic attendance tends to be more about putting out fires than treating the source of the fire. 

Will I need medication?

This is another real concern for many reaching out for help. I’m not a psychiatrist, so I’m not qualified to speak when someone should be on medication and what medication is best.

From my experience it’s a similar answer as above: if you talk to 10 clinicians, you’ll likely get 10 differing opinions.

There will always be a psychiatrist who is willing to give you medication, regardless of the intensity of your anxiety.

And just like diagnosis, there are times when medication can be helpful and probably should be used. And there are times when medication is probably overly relied, are treating the symptoms not the cause, and being used as a substitute for talk therapy.

Is There a Cure for Anxiety

A certain level of anxiety is inevitable. It’s part of being human. In fact, we don’t want to get rid of anxiety entirely as it keeps us safe from threats.

How about unhelpful, destructive anxiety? Can that be cured?

Asking if anxiety can be cured is the same as asking if poor fitness can be cured.

To stay fit, we must work at it continuously. At times we may be less fit than others. Life events happen like a vacation or a major life transition, which causes us to veer off from our workout routine and become less fit.

The same is true for anxiety. By developing habits and routines, we can keep anxiety in check.

Anxiety is also like fitness in the sense that it exists on a spectrum. It’s not that you’re fit or not fit. Fitness exists on varying degrees. Anxiety should be viewed in the same way.

Instead of asking if we can cure anxiety or not, a more realistic question is, is it possible to reduce anxiety back to a level where it serves us well.

And the answer is yes.

What does Biopsychosocial mean?

Biopsychosocial simply means biological, psychological, and social. This important because it’s crucial that we examine anxiety from this lense.

Biological

  • Genetics
  • Disease/illness
  • Substance use
    • Alcohol
    • Drugs
    • Caffeine

Psychological

  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Social anxiety
  • Obsessives Compulsive Disorder

Social

  • Divorce
  • Death of a family member
  • Job change
  • Retirement
  • Moving
  • Family conflict

And the examples above are far from comprehensive. They are just a sample of the infinite number of variables to consider.

Nature vs Nurture

In the psychology world, it’s common to hear “nature vs nurture.”

That is, “is this client experience anxiety because of his difficult childhood, or because of some biological prewiring?”

Though these are important variables to consider, what nature vs nurture implies is that it’s one or the other. It’s either/or. It can’t be both.

Life sure would be easier if there were just one variable to consider. Nature and nurture is far more realistic.

How to answer the “Why do I have anxiety” question

There’s a big pull to answer the why question. There isn’t a single answer. And more times than not, the why question is in search of some single reason.

It makes sense why there’s a pull. We’re used to it.

  1. Leg hurts
  2. Go to the doctor
  3. Take an x-ray
  4. Find out it’s fractured
  5. Treat it

And it’s comforting to believe we have the answer to the why question. And for that reason, it’s not hard to find a clinician who are certain they have the answer to the why question for their client. With it, both feel reassured.

The medical model, however, in my opinion, isn’t effective in the psychological world. Because it’s not realistic.

From my experience, the why question is important. Without being curious about it, we fail to find what is contributing to the anxiety.

At the same time, I don’t think we should get too caught up in the why.

Perhaps instead of “Why do I have anxiety” maybe a better question is, “What biological, psychological, and social variables are contributing to my anxiety?”

How to answer the “What do I do about my anxiety” question

Though the why question is complex and though many variables were out of our control (e.g., our upbringing and the genes we inherited), there’s a lot more known in regard to effective treatment of anxiety.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy CBT

CBT is a style a therapy that is common and effective at treating anxiety. It’s a talk therapy, meaning a clinician and client meet for sessions typically around 45 to 60 minutes in length and talk with one another.

CBT is based on the understanding that thoughts, behaviors, and emotions all influence one another.

Dialectic Behavioral Therapy DBT

DBT is also a type of CBT and works with thoughts, behaviors, and emotions, but with added skills and approaches.

Mindfulness is a big component of DBT. You can think of mindfulness as the ability to watch and observe ourselves. A skill we all have, but can improve. As we increase our ability to be more aware, we are less susceptible to being reactionary to our environment, emotions, and thoughts. By becoming more of an observer, we gain more control. 

Another key component is acceptance of self. Which is also contradictory. How do we accept ourselves, while also maintaining the desire to change ourselves? DBT aims to address this conflict. 

DBT, just like CBT is collaborative between the therapist and client.  

Acceptance Commitment Therapy ACT

ACT is also a type of CBT and like DBT has a mindfulness component to it. ACT’s main goal is to help clients identify values and figure out ways to align behaviors with those values. 

ACT also works under the assumption that a large part of our anxiety is created by trying to reduce our anxiety. ACT is about learning to accept intense emotions. Not to necessarily complacent, but to give up the struggle of trying to avoid and escape anxiety.

ACT also works under the assumption that clients aren’t broken and therefore something to be fixed.

Exposure Response Prevention (ERP)

ERP is about exposing ourselves to the very things that cause us anxiety.

The premise of ERP is that it challenges the avoidance strategy. Avoidance is a common, maladaptive coping strategy used by people dealing with anxiety.

Logically avoidance makes sense: “This certain situation causes me anxiety, so I will avoid it.” What happens, however, is anxiety becomes increasingly higher the more the person avoids. Avoidance also tends to spread into other areas. In short, avoidance works in the short-term, but it usually causes us more trouble in the long-term.

ERP’s goal is to break this cycle.

ERP is commonly understood as a technique used to habituate our brains to triggers. However, I think a better way to understand it is that it teaches clients that they can in fact lean into the anxiety and face it.

 

Finding the right therapist

Most clinicians are trained in a wide range of therapy styles. Some may lean towards one modality more than others, but good therapists will draw off multiple styles to best suit a clients personality and presenting issues. 

A clinicians training, understanding and experience of the issues you’re dealing with, and the alliance you build with your therapist are all important. 

Your therapy won’t be successful if you’re therapist is an expert in CBT, but you don’t feel he or she understands you. The opposite is also true. Just because you have a strong relationship with your therapist, doesn’t mean he or she has enough experience treating the issues you’re dealing with.

I encourage people to go off gut feeling plus finding a clinician having experience and training in anxiety. 

Most clinicians you will find in directories are generalists. This isn’t necessarily bad, but they will have a general, surface level understanding of most issues. 

Some clinicians specialize in anxiety. And if this is your main concern, I would encourage searching for therapist association in your state or county (a

It’s also essential that you find someone who is licensed. In the U.S., it’s illegal to call yourself a therapist, psychologist, counselor, or psychotherapist without getting a license from the state government. Here are some common licensures:

  • LMFT – Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
  • LCSW – Licensed Clinical Social Worker
  • LPCC – Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor
  • LMHC – Licensed Mental Health Clinician
  • Psychologist

I also encourage you to verify the license of the therapist before reaching out to him or her. Simply Google search the name of the license + your state + “verify license.” This should direct you to the state’s licensing board. Navigate the verify a license section, type if the name of your potential therapist or their license number. 

You want to make sure their license is still active and there aren’t any ethical or legal violations. Most boards will list any valid complaints against the therapist. 

This article is for informational use only, should not be considered clinical advice, and does not establish a patient-therapist relationship.