What Is It? Why Do I Have It? How Do I Cope?
Have you ever worried about your health? Money? The well-being of your family? Who hasn’t, right? These are common issues we all deal with and worry about from time to time. However, if you find yourself in constant worry over anything and everything in your life, even when there should be no cause for concern, you might be suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder. People with this condition often recognize they are “over-worrying” about a lot of issues, but have no control over the worry and associated anxiety. It is constant and can interfere with your ability to relax or sleep well and can cause you to startle easily.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder is one of the most common anxiety disorders and affects approximately 3.1% of the American adult population. With 6.8 million reported cases among American adults aged 18 and older, the average age of onset is 31 years old. While it can occur at any point of life, the most common points of onset occur between childhood and middle age. If you are a woman, you are twice as likely to suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder than men.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder is different than having a phobia about something. People with phobias are fearful of something in particular – for example, spiders, heights, or speaking in public. If you have Generalized Anxiety Disorder, you have an uneasy feeling about life in general. Often associated with feelings of dread or unease, you are in a state of constant worry over everything. If a friend doesn’t call you back within an hour, you may start to worry you did something wrong and the friend is upset with you. If you are waiting for someone to pick you up and he is a few minutes late – you may start to fear the worst – that he was in an accident, instead of thinking something more minor, like he got stuck in traffic. The feelings are not as intense as those that occur during a panic attack episode; however, the feelings are long-lasting. This results in having anxiety toward your life in general and the inability to relax – what some may consider far more debilitating than a specific phobia to a certain thing or situation, which you could possible avoid. There is no “off” switch. If you are suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, you are experiencing a constant state of worry – and you cannot avoid it, because life, in general, is causing you anxiety.
Studies have shown that if you are living with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, you are more likely to also suffer from other mental health issues and ailments. Common conditions that are associated with Generalized Anxiety Disorder include depression, irritable bowel syndrome, stress, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and substance abuse.
What are the Symptoms?
If you are suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, you just can’t shake your concerns about anything and everything. And the severity of the condition may come and go. During mild episodes of your condition, you are more likely to be able to hold down a job and not have the disorder interfere too much with your social life. When your anxiety flares up, you might experience difficulty with everyday life situations and find the simplest tasks unbearable.
So how do you know if your anxiety is “normal” or “excessive?” It’s normal to be worried about an upcoming test or wondering how you are going to cope financially when you unexpectedly find out you need major repairs done to your house. If you are suffering from the type of excessive worry that accompanies Generalized Anxiety Disorder, you may see a report on the local news about a new health scare in a different country and stay awake at night worrying about you or your family being affected, even though risks are minimal at best. You will likely spend the next few days and weeks in a constant state of worry about the well-being of your family and experience anxiety that is debilitating, intrusive, excessive, and persistent.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder can present itself mentally and physically. If you think you are suffering from this condition, you might be experiencing some of the following signs and symptoms:
Perpetual state of constant worry
Inability to relax or enjoy quiet time
Muscle tightness or body aches
Avoidance of stressful situations
Difficulty concentrating or focusing on things
No tolerance for uncertainty – needing to know what is going to happen and how it is going to happen
Constant feelings of dread or apprehension
Feeling overwhelmed and avoiding things or situations because of it
Intrusive thoughts of things that cause you to worry – even when you try to stop thinking about them
Feeling like you can’t control your emotions and constant worry – nothing you do helps you to relax
Not being able to sleep at all or to sleep well because you are in a constant state of worry
Feeling jumpy, on edge, or restless
Stomach upset – including nausea and diarrhea
Heart palpitations – feeling like your heart is racing
Trembles or shakes
Sweating and dry mouth
Having difficulty breathing and/or feeling like you are choking
Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
Cold chills or hot flashes
Numbness or tingling sensations
Feeling like you have a lump in your throat
To be classified with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, you must be experiencing a constant state of worry about a variety of everyday situations for at least six months. In addition, you must be experiencing at least three of the following six symptoms:
Restlessness or feeling on edge
Guidelines about diagnosis and treatment follow.
How is it Diagnosed? What Causes it?
Great questions. Unfortunately, there is usually no clear cut answer – and like many mental health disorders – it is likely caused by a combination of genetic, behavioral, and developmental factors. Anatomically speaking, Generalized Anxiety Disorder is most closely related to a disruption in the functional connectivity of the amygdala – the “emotional control center” of the brain – and how it processes feelings of fear and anxiety. Genetics also play a role in Generalized Anxiety Disorder. If you have a family member that also suffers from this disorder, your chances of suffering from it are increased, especially in the presence of a life stressor. Interestingly, long-term substance abuse also increases your chances of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, as the use of benzodiazepines can worsen your anxiety levels, as can excessive alcohol use. Tobacco use and caffeine are also both associated with increased levels of anxiety.
If you believe you are suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, your doctor will perform a variety of physical exams as well as mental health checks. You might first go to your doctor complaining of constant headaches and trouble sleeping. After he or she rules out any underlying medical conditions that are causing your physical symptoms, s/he may refer you to a mental health specialist for further diagnosis. Your mental health specialist will ask you a series of psychological questions to get a better understanding of your condition. To be clinically diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, your doctor and/or mental health provider will assess the length of time you have been suffering from excessive worry and anxiety, your difficulty in controlling your anxiety, how your anxiety interferes with your daily life, and if you are experiencing fatigue, restlessness, irritability, muscle tension, sleep problems, and difficulty concentrating.
What Treatment Options are Available?
Like other anxiety disorders, medications and therapy are the most common treatment options if you are suffering from Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
Psychotherapy – often referred to as “talk” therapy is one treatment option. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a very common method of psychotherapy that has shown great results for people living with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This form of therapy is geared toward helping you recognize and understand your thoughts and the pattern of any negative thoughts you may experience. Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on teaching you coping skills or mechanisms you can use to help you return to normal functioning and ease your feelings of anxiety. It is normally a short-term therapy and people who undergo this type of psychotherapy have found great results.
Some people find that medication alone can be helpful in the treatment of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, while others are more likely to benefit from psychotherapy. Some find that the combination of psychotherapy and medication is the best course of action. Engaging in certain behaviors may also ease your anxiety and promote a healthier lifestyle. These include:
Limiting or stopping the use of caffeine
Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet
Stress management techniques – such as yoga or meditation
To decrease the occurrence of your anxiety in general, don’t miss your medication or any counseling sessions – even if you don’t feel like talking or feel “fine” and make sure you attend your regularly scheduled doctor’s appointments.
By Christina Gregory, PhD