Do you worry constantly about your family, money, health or work? Does this uneasiness affect your sleep or your ability to function?
These are a few of the common hallmarks of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
We all worry to a certain degree about the well-being of our families, our financial situation or jobs, but it isn’t an anxiety disorder until this worry is all-consuming and disruptive to daily functioning.
Anxiety disorders are some of the most common mental health conditions. Estimates say that one quarter of us will experience some form of anxiety disorder during our lifetimes and three per cent of the general population will experience GAD in any given year.
Although people with anxiety disorders are often characterized as worry warts or neurotic, they are simply struggling with an inability to turn off the body’s fight or flight reaction.
Not only do affected individuals worry persistently about a variety of things, there are physical symptoms as well. Feelings of restlessness, fatigue, irritability or insomnia are all very common to GAD. Muscle tension and difficulty concentrating are also frequent symptoms of the disorder.
Experts believe that up to 10 per cent of all people seen in the doctor’s office are describing symptoms of an anxiety disorder. People with frequent headaches, unexplained back pain, fatigue or insomnia are among some of the more common in this group. Yet anxiety is often overlooked as a possible cause.
Unfortunately, GAD is often a chronic disorder and can impair quality of life and even be debilitating if left untreated. It can lead to depression and is common in individuals with depression or other psychiatric conditions.
As with most psychiatric illnesses, the exact cause of GAD is not known. However, both genetic and environmental factors are known to contribute. Negative life events and stress can combine with biological vulnerabilities to trigger the condition.
Anxiety serves an important function when it exists in moderation. It often motivates us to work harder or to get out of potentially dangerous situations. In earlier generations, it likely played an important role in the survival of our species. However, at intense levels and in our modern society, anxiety causes problems.
Fortunately, GAD is treatable. The newer antidepressant medications that affect serotonin and norepinephrine levels in the brain are known to be effective at treating this condition. Tranquilizers are also sometimes used, but can be dependency forming and should not be used in the long term.
Cognitive behaviour therapy is also very effective when dealing with GAD. This treatment involves education about the condition, assistance in problem solving, discussion of irrational beliefs and exercises to encourage changes in behaviour.
Facing fears is very important in therapy if the individual is avoiding feared situations.
Lifestyle changes to reduce anxiety are also helpful. These include getting sufficient sleep every night, as well as regular exercise and a healthy diet. Avoiding stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine is also recommended as these can trigger anxiety.
Relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises or meditation can help ease or lessen anxiety. Minimizing stress by not getting overly scheduled or burdened can also prevent some anxiety.
If you think you may suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, speak with your doctor about possible treatment strategies. There’s no reason to let anxiety overwhelm your life.
Dr. Latimer is president of Okanagan Clinical Trials and a Kelowna psychiatrist.
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