When we feel like we’re under threat, our bodies respond by activating our fight-or-flight response. Oxygen is diverted from the organs and is directed towards our muscles; our hearts beat faster to get that oxygenated blood to those muscles faster, and our breathing also changes. All these physiological responses allow our body to either stand and fight the threat we’re facing, or to flee from it.
While our fight-or-flight response helps us as it helped our ancestors to face dangers like wild animals, fire, and other people that are threatening us, that same response still kicks in when we are faced with situations that aren’t life-threatening.
Situations such as speaking in public, going for a job interview, going on a first date, work concerns, money issues, receiving the results of a medical exam, or sitting for finals can all produce a feeling of anxiety and those physiological responses to danger.
What is an Anxiety Disorder?
Occasional anxiety is a reality for all of us. While it’s a little uncomfortable, usually we can get on with our tasks and it doesn’t interfere with our lives. Anxiety has a function, but when it’s out of proportion to the situation and the symptoms last for at least a few months, that’s something that may need professional medical attention.
Thus, when anxiety is omnipresent and the symptoms of anxiety prevent you from attending to your responsibilities or from enjoying life to the full, if you’re always feeling anxious even though there isn’t a specific reason for it, if you struggle to control your anxiety and worry, then it is likely that you have an anxiety disorder. An anxiety disorder is when anxiety is out of control and is interrupting your normal enjoyment of life.
If you suspect that you may have an anxiety disorder, you need to see a mental health professional for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan. The sooner you can get the help you need, the sooner you can begin addressing the issues and get your life back.
What is Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)?
There are diverse types of anxiety disorders, and generalized anxiety disorder is one of them. Generalized Anxiety Disorder affects 6.8 million adults, or around 3.1% of the U.S. population each year, with women being twice as likely to be affected than men. It can affect children and teens as well, with the symptoms varying depending on one’s stage of life.
The disorder comes on gradually and can begin at any point during a person’s life, though the risk of developing it is highest between childhood and middle age. A person with Generalized Anxiety Disorder finds themselves worrying about any number of things without a discernible reason.
A person with GAD struggles to simply get through the day because of their anxiety, and they can’t stop worrying about things like whether they’ll keep their job or will perform well at school, their finances, health, whether they are on time for something, finishing their household chores and meeting other responsibilities, and the health and well-being of their children.
These things are important, but a person with GAD struggles to get through the day and stop worrying; they can’t control their anxiety or focus on tasks due to worry, and they feel extremely worried about these things even when there is little reason to feel worried.
So, they might worry about their health even though they’re in great shape, their job performance even after just receiving a glowing performance review, or they’ll be anxious about graduating even though they have a high GPA and perform consistently, and so on.
GAD is diagnosed by a mental health professional when a person finds it difficult to control their worry on more days than not for at least six months and has three or more symptoms of the condition. Generalized anxiety disorder symptoms can vary. Adults with GAD may have physical symptoms such as:
- sweating profusely
- feeling light-headed or out of breath
- trembling or feeling twitchy
- feeling restless and struggling to relax
- having trouble falling or staying asleep
- often feeling fatigued or lethargic
- being easily startled
- being irritable or feeling on edge
- having headaches, stomach aches, muscle tension, or muscle aches
- having nausea, diarrhea, or other GI problems like irritable bowel syndrome
- overthinking things
- worrying a lot about everyday things
- struggling to handle uncertainty
- struggling to control their worries or feelings of nervousness. They can’t seem to let go of their worries
- being indecisive and unable or afraid to decide for fear of it being the wrong decision
- being aware that they worry way more than they should but struggling to stop themselves. They may worry a lot about a lot of different things in a way that’s disproportionate to the impact the events may have
- perceiving situations and events as threatening, even when they aren’t
- finding it difficult to concentrate
For children and teenagers, the symptoms of GAD may look a little different than in adults. They may have worries about:
- the safety of their loved ones
- social situations
- how they perform at school or in sporting events
- hurricanes, earthquakes, war, or other catastrophic events
- being on time
A child or teen with excessive worry may avoid going to school or try to avoid social situations; they may lack confidence and strive for approval from adults, needing a lot of reassurance about their performance in school and other areas of life. Additionally, they may feel overly anxious to fit in with others and be a perfectionist, spending a lot of time doing their homework and even redoing certain tasks because they feel they weren’t perfect the first time.
What Causes Generalized Anxiety Disorder?
It is not known with certainty what causes GAD, but genetics, environmental factors, and biology may play a role in developing GAD. GAD sometimes runs in families, but no one is certain why some family members have it while others do not. Stressful life experiences may play a role in the development of GAD, as with the structures in the brain and other biological processes that play a role in feeling and processing fear and anxiety.
Getting Help for GAD
With treatment, GAD can be managed, and a person can lead a meaningful and full life. The first step is to receive a proper diagnosis from a mental health professional, and then from there begin looking at the treatment options and plans available.
Whether your GAD symptoms are mild or serious, you may find that relaxation techniques, meditation, and various forms of exercise may become part of your treatment plan. A healthy lifestyle can help to combat anxiety, so make sure that you get enough sleep and exercise, eat a healthy diet, and that you have a network of friends and family you can turn to for support.
Your doctor will work out a treatment plan for you that is designed to meet your unique needs and goals. GAD is generally treated using psychotherapy, medication, or both, and because both psychotherapy and medication can take some time to begin showing results, it is important that you don’t give up too quickly on treatment and that you follow your doctor’s advice closely.
A type of psychotherapy or talk therapy called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is especially helpful for treating GAD. CBT helps a person to become aware of their thought patterns and teaches them to think differently about themselves and their situation, as well as introducing different ways of behaving and reacting to situations that will help them feel less worried and anxious.
Depending on the severity of your symptoms, your doctor may also prescribe you medication to help treat GAD. Working with you and noting the side-effects and their efficacy in dealing with your symptoms, your doctor will find the medication and proper dosage best suited for you.
Several types of medication are used in the treatment of GAD, and these include Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs), Serotonin-Norepinephrine Reuptake Inhibitors (SNRIs), and benzodiazepines.
Doctors typically use SSRIs and SNRIs to treat depression, but they are also helpful in addressing the symptoms of GAD. These medications may take several weeks to start working, and so you’ll need to exercise patience and let them do their work.
Additionally, they may also cause side effects, such as nausea, headaches, or difficulty sleeping, so you must tell your doctor about any side effects you experience so that they can adjust your medication or its dosage accordingly.
Benzodiazepines, which are sedative medications, can also be used to address severe forms of GAD. Your doctor will likely only prescribe these for a brief time because they can cause dependence if you use them for prolonged periods or continuously.