Everybody can recognise feelings of anxiety, no matter who they are.
First date nerves or feeling jittery at a job interview is more or less commonplace. But what happens when anxiety feels like it’s taking over your life, and you feel anxious but can’t really define why?
You could be suffering from something known as Generalised Anxiety Disorder, or GAD for short.
GAD is a recognised medical condition, and isn’t just being ‘a bit of a worrier’. It can have a massive impact on your every day life. GAD is different to other anxiety conditions, because (unlike social or health anxiety) often sufferers can’t pin-point what exactly makes them nervous.
They can be anxious in a wide range of situations, rather than it being triggered by a specific event, occurrence or memory. A lot of those with GAD say that they never feel relaxed, and that there is always something to be worried about. It can therefore have both physical and mental effects on the sufferer.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF GAD?
People with GAD can feel as though they are constantly on edge, or on the verge of something terrible happening all the time. A lack of concentration and restlessness can impact on the person, sometimes leading to irritability or a sudden change in their mood. Because people with GAD aren’t often sure of what causes their feelings of unease, they may have a tendency to over-think and assume the worst. For example, if someone called their partner and they didn’t answer, someone with GAD might be thinking ‘They’ve died in an accident, they are hurt, they are having an affair’, rather than ‘Maybe their phone is still on silent, maybe they didn’t hear it, maybe they are driving’.
Due to the effects of being in a constant anxious state, there can be a lot of physical impact on someone with GAD. Common physical symptoms can include (but are not limited to):
- Heart palpitations
- Tension in the muscles
- Excess sweating and dizziness
- Constant trembling or shaking
- Feelings of pins and needles, particularly in the fingers and toes
- Feeling sick/nausea
- Insomnia, or becoming a light sleeper
HOW IS GAD DIAGNOSED?
Unfortunately, GAD is notoriously difficult to diagnose. This is because a lot of the symptoms and feelings associated can also be linked to depression, therefore doctors sometimes struggle to differentiate. But usually, with a bit of questioning, the two can be separated and a diagnosis can be made.
Your doctor/mental health professional may ask you to fill in a questionnaire with graded scales, which can help to differentiate between different conditions and aid understanding of the severity of the problem. Typical questions might include:
- Do you feel frequently tense?
- Do you worry about anything in particular?
- Is anxiety affecting your every day life?
- Have you noticed more aching in your muscles, with no explaining reason?
- Do you struggle to deal with the anxiety/Do you feel out of control when you are worried?
These are a few very general questions, and different healthcare professionals might ask different questions. The aforementioned questionnaires usually include questions about the past two weeks, but GAD is more likely to be diagnosed if you have had these feelings for over six months. Therefore, during your conversation with your practitioner, it’s important to go into as much detail as you can about your anxiety, particularly; how it affects you and how long you have been suffering for. Some practitioners might take the time out to rule out any physical reasons for your feelings, doing blood tests and possible scans. But a lot of the time, the conversation you have with your practitioner can itself be enough.
HOW IS GAD TREATED?
As with many mental health issues, there are lots of ways in which treatment can be sought. This is good news, because you and your practitioner can decide what fits in best with your life and personal circumstances.
The initial step that some practitioners recommend is a self-help course which they can give you access to. Sometimes this is through a workbook, but these are increasingly becoming an online tool. You have regular check-ups with your practitioner to see how you are progressing. Your doctors surgery is a great place to signpost you to other services which you might find helpful, including self help groups in your local area. For some people, this is enough for them to begin to improve.
If after this step you haven’t gained much benefit, then your practitioner might recommend a ‘talking therapy’ through your local IAPT service (or privately). Sometimes, practitioners jump straight to this step. A few ‘talking therapies’ which you may have heard of are Counselling and CBT (we also have information about these on our website). In a nutshell, these treatments can help you to understand your feelings and to find ways in which things could be improved, or ways to alter your behaviour or challenge thoughts. There are different levels of these treatments, and you will likely begin with an initial assessment to see which would be best for you. Many people have success with ‘talking therapies’, as they can get to the root of why you are feeling how you are and help you address this. Often when this has been looked at, the problem doesn’t arise again, or you know how to tackle it if it does.
For some, ‘talking therapies’ or self help are not enough on their own, and may require the addition of medication to help the process. The great thing about medication is that it can help alleviate the effects of anxiety whilst you tackle the underlying causes. For some practitioners, medication is the first step instead. But either way, medication can be very helpful. Some people prefer not to take medication, but it is a personal choice and you should discuss your beliefs and feelings with your practitioner. If it is decided that medication gets the green light, then there are a few options which can be considered. For many, antidepressants are the first port of call, and they usually fall under the SSRI category. It’s important to note that antidepressants don’t just treat depression, as the name might suggest, so keep an open mind about how they could improve things for you. Alternatively, beta blockers may be used, which work with the body to reduce the physical effects of anxiety. There are also other medications, such as Pregabalin and Gabapentin, that are used to treat other issues, but which can also be used to treat anxiety. Benzodiazepines are a sedative which can be used in cases of extreme anxiety, and can provide temporary relief, so these might also be an option. Your practitioner is the best person to discuss medication with, as they will know the specifics of your individual condition and will be able to match an appropriate medication to you.
There are small changes that you can make in your daily life which will be able to help you feel better. As recommended for a lot of things, taking a careful look at your diet and avoiding having too much caffeine are important. Regular exercise aids the brain in releasing serotonin, which is a feel-good chemical, so doing this will significantly improve your mood. Plus, it can release a lot of the physical tension associated with GAD. Smoking and drinking too much alcohol are proven to increase feelings of anxiety, so try to cut down or stop if you can, as this will benefit your health. And importantly, find whatever it is which helps you relax a little, and continue to do it. Whether it be a long hot bath, listening to music or getting stuck into a jigsaw, if you find it relaxing then it will benefit you greatly to do it regularly.