We all get anxious from time to time. While it’s entirely normal and healthy to feel anxious or stressed in facing everyday challenges, if your anxiety starts interfering with your day-to-day life, you may have generalised anxiety disorder (also known as GAD).
Read on to learn more about what defines GAD, the difference between normal anxiety and anxiety disorder, and a few treatment approaches you may benefit from.
What is generalised anxiety disorder?
GAD is one of the most commonly diagnosed mental health conditions worldwide. It’s defined by an excessive, chronic worry that interferes with a person’s ability to function normally. Unlike a phobia, where someone experiences a single, specific fear, someone with GAD repeatedly changes their worries from one thing to another.
Example: A person without GAD may realise they haven’t received a response to a text they sent a couple of days ago. As a response, t may make a mental note to follow up with that person. However, someone with GAD may view this unanswered text as something horrible happening to their friend, or contemplate whether or not their friend is mad at them. In turn, they’re also more likely to check their phone until that friend responds.
As you can see, someone with GAD is aware that their fear or worry is irrational or disproportionate to the situation. But, they can’t seem to turn their worry ‘off.’ Because their anxiety isn’t based on reality; using logic isn’t enough to conquer it.
Paradoxically, worrying can feel productive for many people with GAD. It can feel like worrying stops bad things from happening, and if the worrying stops, their fears have a better chance of happening. Ultimately, their worries become both physically and mentally exhausting.
Symptoms of Generalised Anxiety Disorder
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or the DSM-5) outlines a specific set of criteria for anxiety disorder. A mental health professional uses this list of criteria to help you receive an accurate diagnosis and create an effective treatment plan.
A few signs and symptoms of GAD include:
- Processing every single option in a situation and their potential outcomes
- Difficulty concentrating and focusing, feeling like your mind ‘goes blank.’
- Trouble making decisions and handling uncertainty
- Fearful of making the ‘wrong’ decision
- Feel unable to relax
- Inability to put worries aside or let go of them entirely
- Persistent worrying or obsession with concerns that are out of proportion to the actual event
- Feel a sense of imminent danger, panic, or doom
Physical signs and symptoms may include:
- Feeling jumpy, easily startled
- Fatigue or tired
- Difficulty breathing or hyperventilating
- Irritability, restlessness
- Issues with memory
- Muscle tension
- Stomach aches, digestive issues, or nausea
- Difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep throughout the night.
Normal anxiety vs. anxiety disorder
Here are a few things to look out for if you suspect you may have an anxiety disorder.
- Your anxiety is severe. Although anxiety is normal and commonly experienced, a defining trait of GAD is that your anxiety is usually more intense and lasts longer. If you feel like you tend to be more anxious than other people in your life, it may be more than ‘normal’ anxiety.
- The amount of anxiety is disproportionate to the situation. People with GAD tend to get more anxious than the situation seems to warrant. If you’re someone who has anxiety over things that aren’t typically considered a ‘big deal,’ it may be more than usual anxiety.
- You’re anxious about everything. Someone with a healthy amount of anxiety can worry about specific things related to the situation, making them feel anxious. On the other hand, someone with GAD can be described as ‘worrying about something all of the time’ and may find it hard to calm down and relax.
If left untreated, anxiety can worsen over time and interfere with your day-to-day life, making treatment for anxiety essential. Typically, treatment can include therapy, medication, or a combination of the two.
One of the most common types of therapy to treat GAD is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT can help you analyse your thoughts to identify and change any ‘thinking errors’ or cognitive distortions. With CBT, people with generalised anxiety can change the thinking patterns that create anxiety and replace them with new, healthier ways of thinking.
Additionally, CBT, DBT and other types of therapy for anxiety can help you:
- Learn how to relax and calm down physically
- Identify situations, places, people, and things that trigger your anxiety
- Practice new ways of responding to anxiety (rather than avoiding it)
Medication used in treating anxiety works by interacting with your neurotransmitters or brain chemicals. Some medications may block the absorption of or enhance the action of one or more of these chemicals. The different types of prescription medications used in treating anxiety can include:
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
- Serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)
- Tricyclic antidepressants
Making a few lifestyle changes, learning healthy coping skills, and using relaxation strategies can also be helpful.
Remember that what works for one person may not always work as well for you. If the first treatment you try doesn’t go well, don’t assume your anxiety isn’t treatable. Work with your treatment team and address any concerns you may have. Together, you can try something new and find an option that works best for you.