Generalized Anxiety Disorder
A closer look at what it is, how it affects you, and how to manage the symptoms
What is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is characterized by an uncontrollable and unrealistic worry about everyday situations such as school, work, relationships or health. For a diagnosis of GAD, this worrying has to occur for a majority of days and for at least six months.
This worry is uncontrollable and can be accompanied by at least three additional symptoms, such as:
Getting tired easily
You might find that you’re not able to enjoy the things you normally would because GAD may be affecting aspects of your life. In many situations, it is possible that you might feel more likely to misuse alcohol and drugs as a way to escape or numb overwhelming feelings. However, this doesn’t mean that misusing alcohol and drugs should be a way to cope or deal with GAD.
What are the symptoms of anxiety?
GAD can affect both your physical health and your mental health (behavior and feelings). Symptoms can depend on a number of factors, and may pass quickly or may stay for a long period of time. If you or a friend has some or many of these symptoms, it may be worth talking to a doctor or mental health professional about ways to treat GAD.
Some common ways that GAD might affect your mental health include:
Feeling worried or scared
Being cranky or being in a constant bad mood
Feeling uneasy and on edge
Worried or a constant feeling that something bad is about to happen
Always wanting to be very well-behaved, e.g. never getting into trouble at school or with friends (though not necessarily at home)
Being pessimistic and easily able to identify what may go wrong in any given situation
Often asking many unnecessary questions and requiring constant reassurance
Being a loner, or hanging out with a small group of people (who are often younger or older)
Being a perfectionist, taking a long time to complete homework because you try to get it absolutely correct
Being argumentative (but not usually aggressive), especially if trying to avoid a feared situation
Not answering questions and rarely volunteering comments or information at school or college
Getting upset when a mistake is made or if there is a change of routine, e.g. field day, substitute teacher, unexpected visitors, or a trip to an unfamiliar place
Dry mouth and/or difficulty swallowing
Difficulty getting to and staying asleep
Muscle tension and headaches
Rapid heart rate and breathing
Flare-up of another health problem or illness (e.g. dermatitis, asthma)
Sexual problems, such as not having any sexual feelings or being overly interested in sex
What causes GAD?
The causes of GAD are not fully known. However, it is thought that GAD can be part of your genetic and chemical make-up, as well as part of your personality. There are many things that might possibly trigger GAD such as your environment, stressful situations, and/or problems within family or trauma.
Some of the causes of GAD might be:
Genetics or a history of anxiety within your family
Biochemical imbalance of the chemicals in the brain (that regulate feelings and physical reactions) can alter your thoughts, emotions or behavior which can result in anxiety
A stressful event or chain of events such as a family break-up, physical abuse, ongoing bullying at school, sexual abuse, a death, a break up, and/or family conflict
Personality, certain personality types are more at risk of anxiety than others
There are a number of different treatments (both physical and mental) for GAD. Here are some examples:
Psychological treatment provides you with either an alternative to medication or medication that works alongside it. This is provided by a mental health professional, who could be a counselor, psychiatrist, or psychologist, whom you can find through your local doctor, your local community health center, or through your school or college. Some local doctors and other allied health staff also do counseling.
There are a number of psychological treatments or therapies used for anxiety, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which looks at your thoughts and behaviors, and provides ways of changing any negative thought patterns.
Self-help groups are also available, which can help you feel better by knowing and talking to others who are in the same situation.
Medication is a type of physical treatment that may be helpful in managing an anxiety disorder. There are several different types of medications that are prescribed by doctors or psychiatrists. For example:
Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) and antidepressants increase the amount of serotonin in the brain and can only be used on a short-term basis.
Tranquilizers can alleviate some of the physiological symptoms of anxiety, but can make you feel sleepy and lacking in energy.
Some medications are better suited to adults than younger people. Like most medications, there can be side effects. However, medication can be an effective and immediate treatment for anxiety, and has been found to be helpful as a short term treatment for anxiety. It is best to ask your doctor about what options you have, how the medication will affect you, and how to take the medication safely.
Self-help and alternative therapies
Along with seeking treatment to manage your anxiety disorder, there are a number of things you can do that may help when you’re feeling anxious. Alternative therapies can be good as a supplement to medication and/or therapy. Some of these include:
Breathing exercises. When you’re anxious, your breathing can be quick and shallow, which reduces the amount of oxygen going to your organs. Learning how to breathe efficiently can help reduce some of the physiological symptoms of anxiety. Have a look at the Relaxation article for more information on breathing techniques.
Eating well and being active. Even though you might not feel like it, exercising and eating well can help when you are feeling down. Biological factors and social factors influence how you feel, how you react to, and how you think about yourself and other things.
Exercise helps stimulate hormones, such as endorphins, which helps improve your mood and outlook on life. If you haven’t done a lot of exercise before, it might be a good idea to start out doing something small a couple of times each week, such as a 15-minute walk or swimming laps in a pool.
Get outside. Evidence shows that when you have some sort of contact with nature—like pets, plants, gardens or parks—your mood improves and you feel less stressed. Even just going for a walk in the park may help.
Write down your feelings. Writing down your feelings or keeping a journal can be a great way to understand your emotions. It can also help you think about alternative solutions to problems.
Take time out to relax. It’s a good idea to try and take a bit of each day to do something you enjoy. When you are feeling down, it may be hard to be social or motivate yourself to be active. It might help to make a list of all the things you enjoy doing and then plan to do something from this list each day.
Support groups. Along with family and friends, support groups can be a place to share experiences and inspiration with others going through similar times. Talk to your doctor or local community health center for details on support groups in your area. Also, if you are a college student inquire at your campus counseling center to see what kind of support groups the center might be sponsoring. You can also find local support groups online through the Anxiety Disorders Association of America.
Talking to someone. Although it may seem hard, sharing how you feel can help you get through the hard times. This might be a trusted adult, your school counselor, or another mental health professional. If it’s your first time seeing a mental health professional, check out our article here to help you prepare for your first visit.
If you are having difficulty speaking about what you’re going through, you might start with sentences such as “Right now, I’m feeling…”, “I think it started when…”, “I’ve been feeling this for…”, “My sleep has been…”, “Lately school/work/college has been...”
Call a crisis line. If you’re having difficulty talking to people you know or you’d like to talk to someone outside of your situation, Lines for Life has a Suicide LifeLine that can be reached at 1-800-273-8255, as well as a YouthLine at 1-877-968-8491. They are staffed by highly trained volunteers that can offer support and assistance 24/7/365, over the phone, text or through an online chat. If you’d like more resources, check out our crisis helpline directory.
Set small goals. Sometimes people set goals that are almost unachievable and then feel even worse when they can’t reach them. Try to set goals that are attainable for you, even if it’s on a day-by-day, or hour-by-hour basis. And remember to reward yourself, too.
Reduce stress. It might be a good idea to try and reduce the level of stress you’re feeling. You might want to check out the Stress article for some ideas on how to manage stress.
Go easy on drugs and alcohol. Try not to use drugs or alcohol in an attempt to feel better. The feeling you get from drugs and alcohol is usually temporary, and the after effects often make problems worse.
Give it time: Changes in behavior don’t happen overnight and it might take some time before all GAD symptoms go away. It’s a matter of taking baby steps, and getting the right support to get through this.
Getting help to manage GAD
There are a number of different treatments for GAD. A doctor, counselor, psychologist or other mental health professional can talk to you about your symptoms, and discuss alternative ways of treating and coping with them.
Try to remember that managing GAD may take time, and there may be good days and not so good day, but dealing with GAD is possible. You’ve got this!
Information for this article was provided by:
Acknowledgements: This article was originally developed by youth and staff for us.ReachOut.com