Generalized Anxiety Disorder
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What is generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)?
Anxiety is a word that describes feelings of worry, nervousness, fear, apprehension, concern or restlessness. Normal feelings of anxiety often serve as an “alarm system,” alerting you to danger. Your heart beats fast. Your palms get sweaty. Anxiety can provide an extra spark to help you get out of danger. It also can give you the energy to get things done in normal, busy situations. These occasional worries are normal.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is ongoing anxiety that isn’t related to a particular event or situation. It also can be anxiety that isn’t “normal” about a situation. For instance, a person who has GAD may constantly worry about something that’s unlikely to happen. These worries interfere with your day-to-day life.
According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada, anxiety disorders affect 12% of Canadians in any given year. Women are more likely to have it than men. It usually begins to affect people when they are in their early 20s.
Symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder
GAD usually has a gradual onset, so you may not recognize the symptoms as they build up. GAD may fluctuate or change over time. If you have GAD, you may feel tense and worried more days than not. Other symptoms include:
- Trouble falling or staying asleep
- Muscle tension
- Trouble concentrating
- Getting tired easily
- Restlessness, or feeling “keyed up” or on edge
- Shortness of breath
- Fast heartbeat
- Dry mouth
- Headaches, pains for no obvious reason
If you feel tense most of the time and have some of these symptoms, contact your healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider will probably examine you and ask some questions to make sure that something else isn’t causing your symptoms. They may also do a physical exam.
What causes generalized anxiety disorder?
Suppose the fire alarm goes off in your home. You race around frantically to find the fire. Instead, you find that there is no fire–the alarm just isn’t working properly.
It’s the same with anxiety disorders. Your body mistakenly triggers your alarm system when there is no danger. Most of us have some stresses in life or things that cause us to feel stressed. But those with GAD have the “alarm” going off frequently or all the time, even if they cannot identify a trigger. This may be due to a chemical imbalance in your body. It may also be related to an unconscious memory, to a side effect of a medicine or to an illness.
How is generalized anxiety disorder diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will ask you about your symptoms and health history. They will perform a physical exam to make sure a physical or medical condition isn’t causing your symptoms. If your healthcare provider doesn’t find any other reason for your symptoms, you may need to be treated for GAD.
Can generalized anxiety disorder be prevented or avoided?
There is no specific cause for GAD. This means it often can’t be prevented or avoided. The best thing to do is to address the symptoms as soon as possible. Then you can get started on a treatment plan and live a normal day-to-day life
Generalized anxiety disorder treatment
People who have GAD must learn ways to cope with anxiety and worry. Your healthcare provider can help you form a plan to develop skills to cope with your anxiety. The plan may include counseling, medicine, or both. Counseling can help you figure out what’s making you so tense. Your healthcare provider may prescribe medicine to help you feel less anxious.
Living with generalized anxiety disorder
People who have GAD can get better. If you take medicine for generalized anxiety disorder, you may not have to take it forever. Your healthcare provider will tell you if it’s OK to stop taking your medicine.
The most important things are to talk about it, seek help and take action. Action can help you gain a sense of control over your anxiety.
The following are some tips on coping with anxiety:
- Control your worry. Choose a place and time to worry. Make it the same place and time every day. Spend 30 minutes thinking about your concerns and what you can do about them. Try not to dwell on what “might” happen. Focus more on what’s really happening. Then let go of the worry and go on with your day.
- Learn ways to relax. These may include activities such as yoga or a walk around the block.
- Breathe deeply. Follow these steps to take a break during your day to just breathe. Lie down on a flat surface. Place one hand on your stomach, just above your navel. Place the other hand on your chest. Breathe in slowly and try to make your stomach rise a little. Hold your breath for a second. Breathe out slowly and let your stomach go back down.
- Relax your muscles. Start by choosing a muscle and holding it tight for a few seconds. Then relax the muscle. Do this with all of your muscles, one part of your body at a time. Try starting with your feet muscles and working your way up your body.
- Exercise regularly. People who have anxiety often quit exercising. But exercise can give you a sense of well-being and help decrease feelings of anxiety.
- Get plenty of sleep. Sleep rests your brain as well as your body, and can improve your general sense of wellbeing as well as your mood.
- Avoid alcohol and drug abuse. It may seem that alcohol or drugs relax you. But in the long run they make anxiety worse and cause more problems.
- Cut down on caffeine. Caffeine is found in coffee, tea, soft drinks and chocolate. Caffeine may increase your sense of anxiety because it stimulates your nervous system. Also avoid over-the-counter diet pills, and cough and cold medicines that contain a decongestant.
- Confront the things that have made you anxious in the past. Begin by just picturing yourself confronting these things. By doing this, you can get used to the idea of confronting the things that make you anxious before you actually do it.
- Use medicine if it helps. Your healthcare provider may give you medicine to help reduce your anxiety while you learn new ways to respond to the things that make you anxious. Many types of medicine are available. Your healthcare provider will decide which medicine is right for you.
Talk about your anxiety with your healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider can help you make a plan to cope with anxiety. Counseling can help you learn to express your needs and wants so you can feel more in control and hold in less of your anger and anxiety.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada
Nova Scotia Mental Health Crisis Telephone Line
1-888-429-8167 available 24 hours a day, seven days a week
Island Helpline – Prince Edward Island
Canadian Mental Health Association for more information and resources