Anxiety is a normal and often healthy emotion. However, when a person regularly feels disproportionate levels of anxiety, it might become a medical disorder.
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterized by excessive and persistent worrying that is hard to control, causes significant distress or impairment, and occurs on more days than not for at least six months. Other features include psychological symptoms of anxiety, such as apprehensiveness and irritability, and physical (or somatic) symptoms of anxiety, such as increased fatigue and muscular tension.
Not all anxiety needs treatment
When an individual faces potentially harmful or worrying triggers, feelings of anxiety are not only normal but necessary for survival.
Since the earliest days of humanity, the approach of predators and incoming danger sets off alarms in the body and allows evasive action. These alarms become noticeable in the form of a raised heartbeat, sweating, and increased sensitivity to surroundings.
The danger causes a rush of adrenalin, a hormone and chemical messenger in the brain, which in turn triggers these anxious reactions in a process called the “fight-or-flight’ response. This prepares humans to physically confront or flee any potential threats to safety.
For many people, running from larger animals and imminent danger is a less pressing concern than it would have been for early humans. Anxieties now revolve around work, money, family life, health, and other crucial issues that demand a person’s attention without necessarily requiring the ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction.
The nervous feeling before an important life event or during a difficult situation is a natural echo of the original ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction. It can still be essential to survival – anxiety about being hit by a car when crossing the street, for example, means that a person will instinctively look both ways to avoid danger.
The duration or severity of an anxious feeling can sometimes be out of proportion to the original trigger, or stressor. Physical symptoms, such as increased blood pressure and nausea, may also develop. These responses move beyond anxiety into an anxiety disorder.
A person with anxiety disorder is described as “having recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns.” Once anxiety reaches the stage of a disorder, it can interfere with daily function.
While a number of different diagnoses constitute anxiety disorders, the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) will often include the following:
- restlessness, and a feeling of being “on-edge”
- uncontrollable feelings of worry
- increased irritability
- concentration difficulties
- sleep difficulties, such as problems in falling or staying asleep
While these symptoms might be normal to experience in daily life, people with GAD will experience them to persistent or extreme levels. GAD may present as vague, unsettling worry or a more severe anxiety that disrupts day-to-day living.
Should I see a doctor?
See your doctor if you:
- Are more anxious than you think is normal
- Get overly anxious about things that other people handle more easily
Is there anything I can do on my own to feel better?
Yes. Exercise can help many people feel less anxious. It’s also a good idea to cut down on or stop drinking coffee and other sources of caffeine. Caffeine can make anxiety worse.
How is anxiety treated?
- Psychotherapy– Psychotherapy involves meeting with a mental health counsellor to talk about your feelings, relationships, and worries. Therapy can help you find new ways of thinking about your situation so that you feel less anxious. In therapy, you might also learn new skills to reduce anxiety.
- Medicines– Medicines used to treat depression can relieve anxiety, too, even in people who are not depressed. Your doctor will decide which medicines are best for your situation.
Some people have psychotherapy and take medicines at the same time.
There is no reason to feel embarrassed about getting treatment for anxiety. Anxiety is a common problem. It affects all kinds of people.
Keep in mind that it might take a little while to find the right treatment. People respond in different ways to medicines and therapy, so you might need to try a few approaches before you find the one that helps you most. The key is to not give up and to let your doctor know how you feel along the way.
What will my life be like?
People with anxiety disorders often have to deal with some anxiety for the rest of their life. For some, anxiety comes and goes, but gets bad during times of stress. The good news is, many people find effective treatments or ways to deal with their anxiety.