Psychological treatments for anxiety

Psychological treatments (also known as talking therapies) can help you change your thinking patterns so you're able to keep your anxiety under control and reduce irrational worries. 

There are several types of effective psychological treatments for anxiety, as well as different delivery options. Some people prefer to work one on one with a professional, while others get more out of a group environment. A growing number of online programs, or e-therapies, are also available.

Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT)

CBT is a structured psychological treatment which recognises that the way we think (cognition) and act (behaviour) affects the way we feel. CBT involves working with a professional (therapist) to identify thought and behaviour patterns that are either making you more likely to become anxious, or stopping you from getting better when you’re experiencing anxiety. Once you've recognised any unhelpful patterns that are contributing to your anxiety, you can make changes to replace these with new ones that reduce anxiety and improve your coping skills.

For example, you might find yourself stuck in catastrophising thinking patterns. This means thinking the worst, believing something is far worse than it actually is, or anticipating things will go wrong. CBT helps by teaching you to think that more realistically and focus on problem-solving. If you actively avoid situations or things that cause anxiety, CBT can help you face your fears and approach these situations more rationally.

Professionals may use a range of techniques in CBT. Examples include:

  • encouraging you to recognise the difference between productive and unproductive worries
  • teaching you how to let go of worries and solve problems.
  • teaching relaxation and breathing techniques, particularly muscle relaxation, to control anxiety and the physical symptoms of tension.

CBT can be delivered one-on-one with a professional, in groups, or online (see e-therapies, below). CBT is often combined with behaviour therapy.

NewAccess is a free and confidential service that provides support in the form of a coach. The program includes six free sessions tailored to your individual needs. NewAccess coaching is only available in some areas nationally. 

Behaviour therapy

While behaviour therapy is a major component of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), unlike CBT it doesn’t attempt to change beliefs and attitudes. Instead it focuses on encouraging activities that are rewarding, pleasant or give a sense of satisfaction, in an effort to reverse the patterns of avoidance and worry that make anxiety worse.

Avoiding frightening situations can mean you don’t get a chance to face your fear and prove to yourself you can cope with it, in turn causing your anxiety to persist. Behaviour therapy for anxiety relies mainly on a treatment called 'graded exposure'. There are a number of different approaches to exposure therapy, but they're all based on exposing you to the specific things that make you anxious. This experience helps you cope with fearful situations rather than avoiding or escaping them, as well as putting your worry about the situation into perspective. 

E-therapies

E-therapies, also known as online therapies or computer-aided psychological therapy, can be just as effective as face-to-face services for people with mild to moderate anxiety. Most e-therapies follow the same principles as CBT or behaviour therapy, and the structured nature of these treatments means they’re well suited to being delivered online.

Most e-therapies teach you to identify and change patterns of thinking and behaviour that might be preventing you from overcoming your anxiety. You work through the program by yourself, and although e-therapies can be used with or without help from a professional, most involve some form of support from a therapist. This can be via telephone, email, text, or instant messaging, and helps you to successfully apply what you’re learning to your life.

Online programs have several advantages, including:

  • easy to access
  • can be done from home
  • can be of particular benefit for people in rural and remote areas
  • can be provided in many cases without having to visit a doctor.

If you'd like to explore what's on offer and what might work for you, the Australian Government's mindhealthconnect website has a library of online programs.

To find out about other psychological treatment approaches and the level of evidence behind them, download A guide to what works for anxiety.