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Anxiety 101

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

The ninth-grader goes to the health office at school. He tells the school nurse that he can’t breathe. His pulse is racing and he’s sweating profusely. He feels nauseated.

The lawyer has a client meeting. It’s not a particularly important meeting, but of a sudden, she begins having chest pains.

Both the student and the lawyer have normal vital signs and no history of heart problems. So what’s going on?

The symptoms they describe are typical of generalized anxiety disorder, also known as GAD. GAD is different than the once-in-a-while nervousness or anxiousness many people experience at different times or under stressful circumstances. Many people with GAD report feeling overwhelmed or terrified. They often have trouble articulating their symptoms.

What Does It Feel Like?

There is a wide range of physical symptoms associated with GAD, and not every patient will exhibit the same ones. Some people report shortness of breath, hyperventilation, chest tightness, nausea and profuse sweating. These physical manifestations are very real: They are not simply “in your head.”

Panic attacks are another component of GAD. When a person suffers a panic attack, he or she may feel overwhelming fear. These panic attacks typically appear without warning, which makes them even more unsettling to the patient as well as his/her social circle.

From a psychological standpoint, sufferers of GAD are often debilitated by feelings of dread. They often feel overwhelmed by otherwise minor topics. These psychological symptoms combine with physiological indicators, creating an unsustainable situation.

Who Develops GAD?

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, “GAD affects 6.8 million adults, or 3.1 percent of the U.S. population, in any given year.” Interestingly, more women than men have GAD. Experts believe there may be a genetic component because patterns have emerged that indicate GAD may run in families.

Studies reveal that GAD often appears during adolescence, but it can reveal itself at any point in a person’s life. There may also be environmental factors that contribute to GAD. For example, a person may feel overwhelmed after a particular life event (such as being the victim of a crime). The feelings of anxiousness, fear, nervousness and other unsettling emotions can develop into GAD.

Oder people are not immune from developing GAD. An 80-year-old man recently presented with classic GAD symptoms. His doctors state that his co-morbidities of advanced Parkinson’s disease, combined with social isolation, may have spurred the onset.

How is GAD Diagnosed?

A therapist or physician may diagnose a patient with GAD if he or she exhibits a few or several of the following symptoms:

  • Feeling overwhelmed by daily life
  • Debilitating fear
  • Extreme nervousness that is not related to a particular stressful circumstance
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Excessive sweating
  • Heart palpitations
  • Nausea
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Feelings of dread or terror

These are just a few of the most common symptoms associated with GAD. It is imperative to seek professional help when experiencing any of the above symptoms,

Treatment for GAD

There are myriad treatments available to help those with GAD. Cognitive behavioral therapy (also called “talk therapy”) has been shown to be very effective in the treatment of GAD. There are also medication options available that can be used in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s important to meet with your Doctor before beginning any prescribed or holistic alternative treatment.

Anxiety and COVID-19

For the vast majority of the population, this is the first time we’ve experienced a pandemic. This is unchartered territory on so many levels, including psychologically. Forced isolation, due to necessary quarantine and social distancing measures, have left many people feeling desperate and alone. Feeling afraid of contracting the disease has put many people in a position of experiencing anxiety for the first time.

For many people, wearing a face covering is associated with feelings of not being able to breathe. Of course, research proves that is not the case, but that is little comfort for a person experiencing anxiety. Some people, after doing their best to stay home, find venturing out even for necessities, can trigger feelings of anxiousness. A simple trip to the grocery store can be a trigger for many people.

These reactions for a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic are not unexpected However, the anxious feelings associated with the “new normal” should not be mistaken for GAD, which develops over time and is not situation specific.

GAD vs. Occasional Feelings of Anxiousness

GAD is not the same as the occasional nervousness most of us experience from time to time. During the pandemic, more people than ever are reporting feelings of dread and anxiousness. These feelings are often related to circumstances, which is very different from the overwhelming symptoms of GAD. That is not to say, however, that situational anxiety should be ignored. Many of the treatment strategies that work for GAD may also be applied to situational anxiety, including anxiety caused by the pandemic. It’s important to seek help, because when anxiety goes untreated, it can become debilitating.

Fortunately, there are many resources available for people with GAD or situational anxiety. The National Institutes of Mental Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have helpful information. Local mental health resources (including county health departments) can also direct you to sources of help.

Remember, anxiety and GAD are not all in your head. The physical and psychological manifestations are very real. Left untreated, they can be debilitating and adversely affect your life. But there is hope and very effective treatments available.

With Love,

Megan

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