Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Symptoms, Self Help, and Treatment to Break Free from Chronic Anxiety

Anxious womanDo you worry excessively about things that are unlikely to happen, or feel tense and anxious all day long—sometimes with no real reason? Everyone gets anxious sometimes, but if your worries and fears are so constant that they interfere with your ability to function and relax, you may have generalized anxiety disorder. GAD is mentally and physically exhausting. It drains your energy, interferes with sleep, and wears your body out. But you can break free from chronic worrying and learn to calm your anxious mind.

What is generalized anxiety disorder?

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a common anxiety disorder that involves chronic worrying, nervousness, and tension.

Unlike a phobia, where your fear is connected to a specific thing or situation, the anxiety of generalized anxiety disorder is diffused—a general feeling of dread or unease that colors your whole life. This anxiety is less intense than a panic attack, but much longer lasting, making normal life difficult and relaxation impossible.

If you have GAD you may worry about the same things that other people do, but you take these worries to a new level. A co-worker’s careless comment about the economy becomes a vision of an imminent pink slip; a phone call to a friend that isn’t immediately returned becomes anxiety that the relationship is in trouble. Sometimes just the thought of getting through the day produces anxiety. You go about your activities filled with exaggerated worry and tension, even when there is little or nothing to provoke them.

Whether you realize that your anxiety is more intense than the situation calls for, or believe that your worrying protects you in some way, the end result is the same. You can’t turn off your anxious thoughts. They keep running through your head, on endless repeat.

Sound familiar?

  • “I can’t get my mind to stop… it’s driving me crazy!”
  • “He’s late—he was supposed to be here 20 minutes ago! Oh my God, he must have been in an accident!”
  • “I can’t sleep—I just feel such dread… and I don’t know why!”

 

The difference between “normal” worry and GAD

Worries, doubts, and fears are a normal part of life. It’s natural to be anxious about an upcoming test or to worry about your finances after being hit by unexpected bills. The difference between “normal” worrying and generalized anxiety disorder is that the worrying involved in GAD is:

  • excessive
  • intrusive
  • persistent
  • disruptive
“Normal” Worry vs. Generalized Anxiety Disorder
“Normal” Worry: Generalized Anxiety Disorder:
Your worrying doesn’t get in the way of your daily activities and responsibilities. Your worrying significantly disrupts your job, activities, or social life.
You’re able to control your worrying. Your worrying is uncontrollable.
Your worries, while unpleasant, don’t cause significant distress. Your worries are extremely upsetting and stressful.
Your worries are limited to a specific, small number of realistic concerns. You worry about all sorts of things, and tend to expect the worst.
Your bouts of worrying last for only a short time period. You’ve been worrying almost every day for at least six months.

 

Signs and symptoms

Not everyone with generalized anxiety disorder has the same symptoms, but most people experience a combination of emotional, behavioral, and physical symptoms that often fluctuate, becoming worse at times of stress.

Symptoms of GAD
Emotional Symptoms
Constant worries running through your head
Feeling like your anxiety is uncontrollable; there is nothing you can do to stop the worrying
Intrusive thoughts about things that make you anxious; you try to avoid thinking about them, but you can’t
An inability to tolerate uncertainty; you need to know what’s going to happen in the future
A pervasive feeling of apprehension or dread
Behavioral Symptoms
Inability to relax, enjoy quiet time, or be by yourself
Difficulty concentrating or focusing on things
Putting things off because you feel overwhelmed
Avoiding situations that make you anxious
Physical Symptoms
Feeling tense; having muscle tightness or body aches
Having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep because your mind won’t quit
Feeling edgy, restless, or jumpy
Stomach problems, nausea, diarrhea

Recognizing GAD in children

In children, excessive worrying centers on future events, past behaviors, social acceptance, family matters, personal abilities, and school performance. Unlike adults with GAD, children and teens often don’t realize that their anxiety is disproportionate to the situation, so adults need to recognize their symptoms. Along with many of the symptoms that appear in adults, some red flags for GAD in children are:

“What if” fears about situations far in the future

Perfectionism, excessive self-criticism, and fear of making mistakes

Feeling that they’re to blame for any disaster, and their worry will keep tragedy from occurring

The conviction that misfortune is contagious and will happen to them

Need for frequent reassurance and approval

 

Generalized anxiety disorder tip 1: Connect with others

Support from other people is vital to overcoming GAD. Social interaction with someone who cares about you is the most effective way to calm your nervous system and diffuse anxiety, so it’s important to find someone you can connect with face to face on a regular basis. This person should be someone you can talk to for an uninterrupted period of time, someone who will listen to you without judging, criticizing, or continually being distracted by the phone or other people. That person may be your significant other, a family member, or a friend.

How GAD can get in the way of connecting with others

While the more connected you are to other people, the less vulnerable you’ll feel, but the catch-22 is that having GAD can lead to problems in your relationships. For example, anxiety and constant worrying about your close relationships may leave you feeling needy and insecure.

Identify unhealthy relationship patterns. Think about the ways you tend to act when you’re feeling anxious about a relationship. Do you test your partner? Withdraw? Make accusations? Become clingy? Once you’re aware of any anxiety-driven relationship patterns, you can look for better ways to deal with any fears or insecurities you’re feeling.

Build a strong support system. Human beings are social creatures. We’re not meant to live in isolation. But a strong support system doesn’t necessarily mean a vast network of friends. Don’t underestimate the benefit of a few people you can trust and count on to be there for you.

Talk it out when your worries start spiraling. If you start to feel overwhelmed with anxiety, meet with a trusted family member or friend. Just talking face to face about your worries can make them seem less threatening.

Know who to avoid when you’re feeling anxious. Your anxious take on life may be something you learned when you were growing up. If your mother is a chronic worrier, she is not the best person to call when you’re feeling anxious—no matter how close you are. When considering who to turn to, ask yourself whether you tend to feel better or worse after talking to that person about a problem.

 

Tip 2: Learn to calm down quickly

While socially interacting with another person face-to-face is the quickest way to calm your nervous system, it’s not always realistic to have a friend close by to lean on. In these situations, you can quickly self-soothe and relieve anxiety symptoms by making use of one or more of your physical senses:

Sight – Look at anything that relaxes you or makes you smile: a beautiful view, family photos, cat pictures on the Internet.

Sound – Listen to soothing music,  sing a favorite tune, or play a musical instrument. Or enjoy the relaxing sounds of nature (either live or recorded): ocean waves, wind through the trees, birds singing.

Smell – Light scented candles. Smell the flowers in a garden. Breathe in the clean, fresh air. Spritz on your favorite perfume.

Taste – Slowly eat a favorite treat, savoring each bite. Sip a hot cup of coffee or herbal tea. Chew on a stick of gum. Enjoy a mint or your favorite hard candy.

Touch – Give yourself a hand or neck massage. Cuddle with a pet. Wrap yourself in a soft blanket. Sit outside in the cool breeze.

Movement – Go for a walk, jump up and down, or gently stretch. Dancing, drumming, and running can be especially effective.

 

Tip 3: Get moving

Workout ladies

Exercise is a natural and effective anti-anxiety treatment. It relieves tension, reduces stress hormones, boosts feel-good chemicals such as serotonin and endorphins, and physically changes the brain in ways that make it less anxiety-prone and more resilient.For maximum relief of GAD, try to get at least 30 minutes of physical activity on most days. Exercise that engages both your arms and legs—such as walking, running, swimming, or dancing—are particularly good choices.

Add mindfulness to your workout

Mindfulness is a powerful anxiety fighter—and an easy technique to incorporate into your exercise program. Rather than spacing out or focusing on your thoughts during a workout, focus on how your body feels as you move. Try to notice the sensation of your feet hitting the ground, for example, or the rhythm of your breathing, or the feeling of the wind on your skin. Not only will you get more out of your workout—you’ll also interrupt the flow of constant worries running through your head.

 

Tip 4: Look at your worries in new ways

The core symptom of GAD is chronic worrying. It’s important to understand what worrying is, since the beliefs you hold about worrying play a huge role in triggering and maintaining GAD.

Understanding worrying

You may feel like your worries come from the outside—from other people, events that stress you out, or difficult situations you’re facing. But, in fact, worrying is self-generated. The trigger comes from the outside, but your internal running dialogue keeps it going.

When you’re worrying, you’re talking to yourself about things you’re afraid of or negative events that might happen. You run over the feared situation in your mind and think about all the ways you might deal with it. In essence, you’re trying to solve problems that haven’t happened yet, or worse, simply obsessing on worst-case scenarios.

All this worrying may give you the impression that you’re protecting yourself by preparing for the worst or avoiding bad situations. But more often than not, worrying is unproductive—sapping your mental and emotional energy without resulting in any concrete problem-solving strategies or actions.

How to distinguish between productive and unproductive worrying? If you’re focusing on “what if” scenarios, your worrying is unproductive.

Once you’ve given up the idea that your worrying somehow helps you, you can start to deal with your worry and anxiety in more productive ways. This may involve challenging irrational worrisome thoughts, learning how to stop worrying, and learning to accept uncertainty in your life.