Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a type of anxiety disorder that is characterized by persistent and excessive worry, anxiety and fear daily. This excessive worry often interferes with daily functioning. Anxiety is a normal part of our mental health, but in generalized anxiety disorder and other anxiety disorders, this anxiety and worry becomes pathologic - the anxiety is there daily and interferes with life on a daily basis.
What can cause Generalized Anxiety Disorder?
There is no one single cause of GAD. It is often a result of a combination of things in our lives. This includes our stressors, predisposition, mental health, family history, health problems, neurotransmitter balance and much more.
There are many different types of anxiety disorders classified in the DSM-5 and DSM-IV.
Phobias: The feeling of an intense fear of a specific thing that impacts daily functioning, causes marked distress and is beyond normal and rational fear.
For example, agoraphobia: This is a specific phobia or fear of being in a place where you can get trapped or helpless. This will often lead someone to avoid situations where this might happen. This includes subways, elevators, etc.
Panic disorder (panic attacks): Panic attacks are acute episodes of anxiety that are extremely intense and debilitating. They are often acute and are often brought on by a specific trigger. Panic attack symptoms include light-headedness, nausea, tingling, fear, worry, shortness of breath, increase in heart rate or heart palpitations, numbness and many more. Panic attacks can be part of other disorders such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): Uncontrollable reoccurring thoughts and behaviours that the person feels the need to be completed or repeated or else there will be a consequence. This can cause extreme feelings of anxiousness for the person who is experiencing these thoughts as well as the worry of the consequence if they are not completed.
Social anxiety disorder (social anxiety): Symptoms that result from being in social situations can be coupled with being self-consciousness and having low self-esteem. This can include social phobia which is an excessive and irrational fear of social situations to the point where it causes extreme overwhelm and panics. A person will often avoid social situations at all costs.
Separation anxiety disorder: Symptoms result from the physical separation or thought of separation from a specific person, place or thing
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Symptoms begin after a specific traumatic event. The event is often replayed repeatedly continually reactivating the stressor
Stress disorder: Characterized by extreme stress from environmental stressors such as work, school etc that result in periods of increased anxiety.
Anxiety-related disorders are often co-occurring in many people. Having one form of mental illness can be a risk factor for developing another one. GAD especially can be often found with one or multiple other mental conditions. A more acute mental illness can trigger the chronic anxiety response found in GAD resulting in both an acute anxiety condition and a chronic GAD. For example, panic disorder can result in the development of GAD. A person begins having panic attacks on random instances. They then continue to get more and more worried about when they are going to have another panic attack. This results in daily anxiety that interferes with functioning and can be classified as GAD, as well as the panic disorder and random panic attacks that were already present. In the same way, other mental health disorders such as phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder and social anxiety disorder can also trigger GAD. Substance abuse can also lead to substance-induced Generalized Anxiety Disorder and anxiety attacks.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder can affect both our mental health and our physical health. Because anxiety and worry activate our fight-or-flight response our body responds both physically and mentally to the feeling of being anxious. Physical symptoms of anxiety include nausea, shortness of breath, chest pain, irritability, restlessness, heart palpitations, feeling lightheaded, muscle tension and much more. These physical anxiety symptoms are co-occurring with the mental distress, worry, intense fear that characterizes anxiety. The physical symptoms can also be further anxiety-provoking leading to worse mental symptoms and possible anxiety attacks.
Antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication can be helpful in reducing the symptoms associated with anxiety disorders and GAD. An example of anti-anxiety medication is serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). These medications act on the neurotransmitters in the brain. They help to balance them out to try and decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression. Another form of medication is benzodiazepines which are a form of sedative. They help to calm the mind acutely to prevent any anxiety symptoms. These medications can have side effects and should always be used with caution and with medical advice.
Some over-the-counter medications may aid in the anxiety symptoms however it is most effective to seek the support of a health professional.
Seek the Help of a Health Professional
Therapy including cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) has been shown to be effective in reducing anxiety symptoms from multiple different anxiety disorders. Cognitive-Behavioural treatment involves identifying thought patterns that are contributing to the anxiety disorders and implementing behavioural therapy to try and change the behaviours associated with them. The goal of CBT is to improve emotional regulation and in doing so decrease the effects of anxiety disorders both physically and mentally. It has been shown to have both short-term and long-term benefits in the treatment of most anxiety disorders.
Calm the Nervous System
Generalized Anxiety Disorder and other anxiety disorders are characterized by an increased response in the central nervous system to a perceived stressor.
Relaxation techniques, meditation, breathing exercises are all ways to bring the body out of the fight-or-flight state that characterizes GAD and back into the present moment. These are especially important in conditions like Generalized Anxiety Disorder where the anxiety response is constantly activated at a low, chronic level. Incorporating exercises like this daily can be extremely helpful in this disorder. It can help to decrease daily symptoms and foster a sense of well-being.
Physical therapies such as massage or chiropractic may also help to treat the physical symptoms of GAD such as muscle tension. Physical touch is one way of calming the nervous system.
Treat co-occurring medical conditions and mental illness
Look at what other triggers and conditions could be resulting in the GAD symptoms - this can include specific phobias, obsessive-compulsive thoughts, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Take care of one’s mental health
- Eat foods that nourish the nervous system- focus on a diet high in fruits and vegetables, as well as good fats (avocado, nuts and seeds, olive oil) and protein to nourish the body and nervous system. This can make it more resilient to triggers and anxiety attacks.
- Try and decrease stress and avoid stressors especially in stressor-related anxiety disorders like social phobias.
- Focus on incorporating things that you love into your daily life
- Get a good night’s sleep to try and help reset the nervous system and give it a chance to recover from the stress of the day
- Create a good support system - find people that you can talk to when things get challenging. Many people feel alone in their anxiety disorder and mental disorders and this can exacerbate the symptoms of it.
There is no specific timeline for how long Generalized Anxiety Disorder lasts for. As it is a more chronic anxiety disorder the person suffering may not have any relief from their daily experience of this. This makes it extremely important to practice some of the suggestions mentioned above.
There are various herbal products and botanicals that have been shown to help decrease the symptoms associated with anxiety disorders. These include anti-anxiety, antidepressant and adaptogen plants such as Passionflower, which acts on the central nervous system, binding to the GABA receptors that relax the body. This reminds the body to slow down and decreases stress allowing the body and mind to relax. It is a very gentle flower that not only helps promote relaxation, but it helps to revitalize and restore the body.
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