Worrying is a part of life. Often, we find ourselves concerned over various circumstances in our lives, be it financial needs/commitments; emotional needs; concerns over our jobs, etc. However, there is a thin line between normal worry and what psychologists call general anxiety disorder, which is a form of anxiety that affects many people.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) often presents as persistent and excessive worry which interferes with and affects a person’s daily activities and consequently their quality of life. In America, it is estimated that nearly 3.1% of the adult population suffers from GAD and the average onset for GAD is usually in the early thirties. However, GAD can be experienced at different stages of life, mostly between childhood and middle age; and women are twice at risk of experiencing GAD than men are.
Usually, with GAD, the worry and tension are accompanied by physical symptoms, including difficulty concentrating, muscle tension, restlessness, inability to fall asleep, problems sleeping, stomach upset – including nausea and diarrhoea, heart palpitations, dry mouth, etc. People who experience GAD are often unable to relax and let go of concerns when they come up. They experience intrusive thoughts, and their worries often oscillate between everyday things such as work tasks, family health issues, or even household chores, to more serious issues including global events such as outbreaks of epidemics and natural disasters in foreign places.
GAD often occurs alongside other psychiatric disorders. According to the Harvard Medical School, nearly two-thirds of people who present with GAD also suffer major depression; and about one-quarter have panic disorder. One of the distinctive factors between people with GAD and those with depression is that those with generalized anxiety disorder tend to overly worry and concern themselves about potential misfortune whereas those people with depression are more likely to have difficulty making a mental effort.
Many individuals who experience GAD have also been reported to have substance use disorders or alcohol dependence.
Scientists think GAD, like other types of anxiety, occurs as a result of excessive activation of the brain mechanism, particularly the part that regulates the fear and the fight-or-flight response. However, life experiences can also make this condition worse. For example, an individual under severe or constant stress is likely to produce a hyperactive anxiety reaction. Individuals with certain personality traits, such as shyness, tend to be more vulnerable to developing anxiety disorders.
As with most mental health conditions, GAD can be effectively managed using a combination of psychotherapy and/or medication. Antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) or dual serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) are popular in the treatment of GAD. Even though both classes of medication are stated to take longer to work than traditional anti-anxiety medication, they are quite effective in providing greater relief of GAD symptoms over time.
Psychotherapy is also useful in managing GAD. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), a form of psychotherapy, is said to be the most studied approach in the treatment of GAD. CBT is useful in managing generalized anxiety disorder particularly because it helps individuals recognize and correct the misperceptions that contribute to anxiety. This method of therapy precisely targets thoughts, physical symptoms and behaviours such as over-preparation, planning and avoidance that are associated with GAD. A therapist might help people recognize when and how they are misinterpreting events and making pessimistic assumptions and provide support as individuals opt for newer and healthier thought patterns.
In societies like ours where accessing proper mental health care is difficult, individuals who suspect they might be experiencing GAD do not need to suffer in silence. There are various self-help tips that can be useful in ameliorating the symptoms and improving their lives. A few of those tips are discussed below.
- Identifying your worry: as discussed people who experience GAD excessively worry about things that may or not be true. So, the first step in helping yourself come out of this pattern is to identify the issues of concern. You can write them down if it will help you remember.
- Reclassifying your worry: you can classify your worries into two broad categories a) worries about current problems; b) worries about hypothetical problems. With actual/current problems, your locus of control is much larger than it is with hypothetical problems and so you begin by focusing your attention on your actual problems. It is important to note that you might not necessarily have all the solutions to the actual problems in your life, but listing them out can help you know how and to which aspects you channel your energy.
- Practice relaxation: if you are someone who worries incessantly, you will benefit significantly from deliberately including relaxation into your routine. You can take several five-minute breaks during the day where you disconnect from everything and everyone and just focus on breathing which can help in soothing and calming you.
- Talk to someone: We can all benefit from having a sound support system and this is especially true for people living with generalized anxiety disorder. It is important to find a trusted person or group that you can safely discuss your challenges with. They should be people who know how to calm you and help you feel better rather than those who can potentially intensify your anxiety.
- Exercise: Moving the body is such a great way to manage stress, boost our endorphins and relieve tension. It can be also useful for helping people with GAD sleep better at night. As much as possible, keep a consistent exercise schedule and try to incorporate exercise at least three to four times per week.
— Martha Sambe