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Generalized Anxiety. Do I have It?

Wooden blocks with letters on them spell out the words calm and panic with a person's fingers shifting them from one to the other with the letter

We have all experienced those butterflies in our stomachs, a heavy pit in our throats, or a rush of energy through our bodies. Some of these sensations are normal and to be expected before a big presentation, public speaking, or a performance that puts us in the spotlight. However, individuals that experience Generalized Anxiety Disorder have a different experience of how and when anxiety impacts their life.

What is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

It is estimated that 5-7 million adults in the United States are impacted by Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). As described by the DSM 5 Generalized Anxiety Disorder is described as “Excessive anxiety and worry, occurring more days than not for at least 6 months, about a number of events or activities.”. This sense of worry becomes difficult to control, many times feeling out of an individual's control or even present for unknown reasons. Frequently individuals become preoccupied with the worst-case scenario of events or hyper-focused on what may go wrong causing them to avoid situations or interactions based on fear of possible outcomes outside of the individual’s control.

Symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder may include some or all of the following:

  • Restlessness
  • Feeling on Edge
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Mind going blank
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Racing heart
  • Chest tightness
  • Sweating
  • Avoidance of activities that previously enjoyed or that may cause increased anxiety symptoms

The symptoms must cause significant distress or impairment in individuals ability to function in the home, school, work or relational settings.

When considering if you have a Generalized Anxiety Disorder it is also important to rule out other possible causes of symptoms including underlying medical conditions, substance use, or other mental health disorders.

Causes of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

The exact cause or causes of Generalized Anxiety Disorder is still unknown. There is research that supports impacting factors of Generalized Anxiety Disorder to possibly include biological factors, life experiences (trauma/exposure to unpredictable/intense interactions and events), family history, and family dynamics. Having any or all of these risk factors does not indicate that an individual will experience Generalized Anxiety Disorder, however, they may be at higher risk for developing this disorder throughout their lifetime. There are also individuals that may not experience any risk factors, however, develop Generalized Anxiety Disorder. There is also some research that highlights the important role that preventative (supportive) factors can play in delaying the onset or avoiding the development of Generalized Anxiety Disorder altogether. These preventative factors can include socioeconomic status, a positive support system, a healthy lifestyle (diet, exercise, sleep patterns), coping strategies to manage stressful events, and the ability to remove yourself from exposure to prolonged stressful events/interactions.

Do I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder?

Generalized Anxiety Disorder impacts individuals differently, everyone may not experience all the symptoms listed above or may experience different symptoms at different times. If you are worried that you may have Generalized Anxiety Disorder talking to your doctor or a mental health professional may be a helpful resource to assess symptoms and if further support or treatment is needed.

Overcoming Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Generalized Anxiety Disorder, even when experienced severely, can be treated. The purpose of treatment is to reduce the intensity and frequency of symptoms. There are many different types of treatment approaches to consider. Some of the most commonly used treatment approaches are:

Also known as ‘talk therapy’ or counseling is a common and helpful approach to treating Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Counseling has come a long way since Freud analyzed people's relationships with their mothers on his couch. While many therapy offices may still have a comfy couch or oversized chair present they are also equipped with evidence-based treatment models like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and exposure therapy, two models with research supporting their effectiveness in alleviating symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Counseling approaches may include helping individuals identify triggers, underlying unhelpful things patterns, and challenge the validity and replace unhelpful thinking patterns with more helpful or realistic thoughts. Counseling may also provide individuals with tools and coping strategies to manage anxiety symptoms before they become overpowering so that individuals can again engage in daily activities they once avoided due to symptoms.

Both pharmaceutical medications and natural supplements have been used to treat symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder. The most commonly used medications for treating depression are Antidepressants, Buspirone, and Benzodiazepines, designed to impact brain chemicals that impact anxiety symptoms. It is important to work closely with your doctor to find out if medication is the right approach for you. Depending on the medication used effects can be noticed quickly or up to 2-4 weeks following the start of medications. Medications are typically not an isolated ‘fix’ or silver bullet to treating Generalized Anxiety Disorder. It is strongly recommended that individuals seek counseling services in conjunction with medication in order to further treat underlying causes and triggers of depression.

Everyday approaches to support decreasing symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder: In addition to (or in combination with) the above-listed treatment models, there are many things that individuals can do to increase their chances of relieving or decreasing symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, including:

  • Increasing physical activity and exercise
  • Spending time with supportive friends and family
  • Create small obtainable goals
  • Educate yourself on Anxiety and ways to manage symptoms safely and effectively

Give yourself grace, you did not get to this point overnight, and you will not feel relief overnight either. Change takes time and comes in small doses. Sometimes it’s hard for us to notice a change and it may be helpful to ask those around you for feedback on the improvements or changes they observe.

Eat healthily and stay hydrated (with water!). Trying to decrease your intake of processed food, foods high in sugar and fillers, and making sure that you create a balanced diet to fuel your body on a daily basis.

The Take-Away:  Generalized Anxiety Disorder can come in many forms and impact anyone at any time in life. It’s important to remember that it’s not your fault if you are experiencing anxiety and there is help and support available! Reaching out and getting information about anxiety counseling is the first step toward feeling relief from symptoms.