Everyone has stress in their life. We all have deadlines for work, bosses to answer to, bills to pay and maybe even have kids to look after. Naturally, life isn’t perfect and sometimes things don’t go as planned (like having car trouble on the way to an appointment). When things like these happen, it is normal to feel stressed and experience anxiety. Sometimes anxiety is necessary and the things that occur in your body at these times can actually help improve your performance (head on over to my blog on panic disorder for more information about this [How to not panic when you’re panicking]).
But what if you were constantly switched on like this and you couldn’t turn it off? Constantly worrying about something to the point where it gives you chills, makes you sick or makes it hard to sleep or concentrate….. exhausting right?
This is what generalized anxiety disorder (or GAD) feels like.
What is generalized anxiety disorder?
Sometimes in life, we have more to worry or stress about than usual. We may go through a difficult period where it feels like we are worried or anxious all the time. During these times, we generally have reason to be worried (e.g. a difficult family situation, loss of job or breakup) and this is not GAD. It is just a period of time where we are adjusting to what is going on for us. Most of the time, this worry will resolve once things have settled down.
GAD is different in that people experiencing GAD suffer from a much higher level of worry and anxiety than you would generally expect for everyday life. This worry is also persistent and pervasive. Persistent in that the person experiences it most days of their life; and pervasive in that it is very difficult to control. There are no particular triggers for the worry and the person just feels anxious most of the time, making it very difficult for them to control.
People experiencing GAD tend to worry about a variety of areas in their lives such as their health, the health of their families, their relationships, their work etc). Often the things they worry about are unlikely to occur or it is unlikely they will have any control over these occurring, such as a natural disaster or a friend getting sick. This type of worry and the anxiety it causes can be unhelpful because there is no purpose for the worry (opposed to if the person did have some control over the situation). Often people experiencing GAD are aware that their worry is excessive and unhelpful, but still, they find it hard to control. This can then lead to a vicious cycle by giving them yet something else to worry about……worry! “A little bit of escapism isn’t a bad thing,” says Chloe Carmichael, Ph.D., a psychologist based in New York City. So at least consider it.
Essentially the catch is that they are trying to avoid the worry, by worrying and all this does is make them more anxious (I’m getting dizzy just thinking about it).
So what causes GAD?
GAD is not caused by any one single thing, but more so a combination of family history, temperament and how you view the world. GAD often runs in families and can be passed on both biologically and through the parents modeling this worry behavior to their children.
How can GAD be managed?
This is always best done with a professional through counseling. There is a range of psychological and medical treatments that a qualified professional can provide to help you manage your worry and get your life back on track again. Contact your GP to find out how to access a psychologist or psychiatrist and they can help you with this.
Is there anything I can do myself though?
“Most people with anxiety know they’re being irrational, but it doesn’t help because in the moment, fear takes over,” says Regine Galanti, Ph.D. There are some things that you may be doing in an attempt to stop the worrying that is, in fact, making it stronger. These include seeking reassurance from others about what is worrying you, avoiding things that might cause anxiety or worry (e.g. not watching the news in case something bad has happened), not attempting things at all due to a fear you might not do them well and trying to stop the worry altogether. What lies at the core of all of these things is avoidance. “When anxiety goes untreated, it leads to other anxiety disorders or depression or substance use, academic underachievement, employment difficulties and problems later in life,” says Dr. Kendra Read. So think about it.
Aaah there’s that word again… the thing we all want to do to our fears (avoid) but unfortunately what also makes them stronger. It seems a little counter-intuitive that one way to weaken (or control) the worry is to not try and control the worry but the logic behind this goes back to our first explanation around anxiety (please see my blog on social anxiety [social anxiety: when it’s a bit more than pre-party jitters]). An anxiety disorder (of any type) occurs where the brain incorrectly identifies a non-threat as a threat.
Avoidance strengthens our fears in that it does not allow the brain the opportunity to disprove this and learn that it is not a threat. So if you can find ways to make the worry more bearable and work out if some of your worries are helpful or unhelpful you can, in turn, allow the brain to learn that there is nothing to be afraid of. Things that can assist with this include relaxation and breathing training (head over to [panic disorder article] for some helpful links) and also questioning around our worrying thoughts to identify if they are helpful or unhelpful. Once we identify they are unhelpful worries, we can then work to rejig them to be more helpful. A handy resource for this can be found here.
For more information on GAD and self-help guides please refer to the resources below.