Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a condition in which people experience a constant state of high anxiety, which does not seem to be attributed to any particular cause. Sufferers feel they are anxious about everything and have expectations of catastrophe or disaster. The worry a person experiences is usually extremely out of proportion to the risk. For instance, if a partner was late home without calling, their thought processes could include worrying they have had an accident or have died. A sufferer is unable to calm themselves down and think rationally and in extreme cases, can become completely overwhelmed and suffer panic attacks.

GAD is a common condition and affects approximately 6.8 million US adults a year. It is the most common cause of disability in the workplace in the US. It is slightly more common in women than men and usually affects people between the ages of 35-55, although it’s common in older people too.

While GAD can be diagnosed by either a doctor or a mental health professional, it is important that a doctor is involved in the diagnosis to rule out medical causes for the anxiety. There are a number of other mental health issues which include anxiety or can exist alongside it, such as depression. It’s important that you are completely honest about your symptoms so that the correct treatment protocol can be applied.  GAD can be diagnosed when a sufferer has experienced symptoms for more than six months and it can manifest itself both physically and mentally. You should see your doctor if you have the following symptoms:

  • Poor sleep
  • Feeling irritable
  • Feeling nauseous and unable to eat
  • Tension in the muscles
  • Panic attacks
  • Imagining the ‘worst-case scenario’ of everything
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Being unable to relax
  • Shortness of breath
  • Palpitations
  • Dry mouth
  • Trembling or shaking

Generalized Anxiety Disorder has many causes, but for some people there may not be any obvious cause. Research has shown that the following can contribute to GAD:

  • Trauma such as child abuse and bullying
  • Over-activity in the areas of the brain responsible for emotions and behaviour
  • A history of drug and alcohol abuse
  • Genes – you’re more likely to suffer GAD if a parent had it
  • An imbalance in the brain chemicals serotonin and noradrenaline
  • Suffering with a painful long-term health condition
  • Long-term use of benzodiazepines

The impact of Generalized Anxiety Disorder on a person’s life can be widespread. It can interfere with work, family and maintaining relationships. People may avoid doing certain things because of the associated worry and start to withdraw from social activities.  This can then spiral into more worry and feelings of low self-esteem. Being constantly anxious is exhausting as the body is permanently in ‘fight or flight’ mode. This a primitive reaction that early man evolved to deal with immediately life threatening situations such as being chased by a woolly mammoth. When faced with danger or stress, the body releases the chemicals adrenaline and noradrenaline to provide us with the energy to fight an attacker or run away. This is a short-term solution designed to help us survive, but in GAD the sufferer is unconsciously triggering the stress response even though there are no woolly mammoths to be seen.

GAD can be treated in a number of different ways and can be managed or eliminated completely with proper treatment. It’s important to visit your doctor or GP to be properly assessed and they can recommend medication and/or psychological therapy. A type of anti-depressant called an SSRI can be prescribed and you may be referred for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. This has been proven to be extremely effective for GAD and it works on helping you to identify, understand and change unhelpful thinking patterns. It also shows how your thoughts, feelings and behaviour all affect each other. For instance, if you were worrying that a partner was late and had been in an accident, CBT would encourage you to find ‘evidence’ to support that belief. Instead of imagining the ‘worst-case scenario’ you could come up with other scenarios such as ‘they might have been delayed in a meeting at work’, ‘perhaps the traffic was bad’ or ‘maybe the battery died on their phone’. Finding reasonable solutions can help you realise that the chances of an accident happening are quite slim and there are lots of other rational explanations for your worries. CBT will encourage you to self-monitor your symptoms, to work out what triggers your anxiety, to observe what time of day you feel most anxious and identify the thoughts you experience when you worry. You can start to note patterns of thinking and how they affect your anxiety levels. CBT can be recommended as a series of sessions with a therapist, or as an online course.

There is also a lot you can do to help yourself. Cutting back on alcohol and caffeine is recommended, as is taking plenty of exercise. It’s been shown that consuming high levels of caffeine can produce anxiety symptoms so this won’t help if you are already struggling with GAD. Exercise helps to work off some of the adrenaline and noradrenaline and counteracts it with ‘feel good’ endorphins and chemicals such as serotonin. Support groups can also be useful in terms of sharing advice and experiences with people who understand what it feels like. You can ask your doctor if there are any support groups in your local area, or check online as there are lots of internet forums and Facebook support groups. It can also help to try yoga, mindfulness techniques, meditation and relaxation classes, which can be useful in terms of learning how to calm your mind and body. Learning to relax takes time if you are used to being constantly anxious, but it’s worth it. A good relaxation class will help you to target which areas of your body are storing tension and work to control your muscles as you feel yourself starting to become anxious. Eating healthy, well-balanced meals is also important. Avoid skipping meals or snacking on sugary foods as these can all cause anxiety.

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