As part of our Wellness Wednesdays campaign, we’ll be sharing a blog every Wednesday from Healthily – our preferred health partner – to give you tips, advice and guidance on a wide variety of health conditions. This blog is about generalised anxiety disorder, shedding light on the symptoms, diagnosis and treatment for this mental health concern.
What is generalised anxiety disorder in adults?
Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe.
Everyone has feelings of anxiety at some point in their life – for example, you may feel worried and anxious about sitting an exam, or having a medical test or job interview. During times like these, feeling anxious can be perfectly normal. However, some people find it hard to control their worries. Their feelings of anxiety are more constant and can often affect their daily lives.
Anxiety is the main symptom of several conditions, including:
- panic disorder
- phobias – such as agoraphobia or claustrophobia
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- social anxiety disorder (social phobia)
However, the information in this section is about a specific condition called generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). GAD is a long-term condition that causes you to feel anxious about a wide range of situations and issues, rather than one specific event.
People with GAD feel anxious most days and often struggle to remember the last time they felt relaxed. As soon as one anxious thought is resolved, another may appear about a different issue. GAD can cause both psychological (mental) and physical symptoms. These vary from person to person, but can include:
- feeling restless or worried
- having trouble concentrating or sleeping
- dizziness or heart palpitations.
When to see your doctor…
Although feelings of anxiety at certain times are completely normal, see your doctor if anxiety is affecting your daily life or causing you distress.
Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and your worries, fears and emotions to find out if you could have GAD.
What causes GAD?
The exact cause of GAD isn’t fully understood, although it’s likely that a combination of factors plays a role. Research has suggested these may include:
- overactivity in areas of the brain involved in emotions and behaviour;
- an imbalance of the brain chemicals serotonin and noradrenaline, which are involved in the control and regulation of mood;
- the genes you inherit from your parents – you’re estimated to be 5 times more likely to develop GAD if you have a close relative with the condition;
- having a history of stressful or traumatic experiences, such as domestic violence, child abuse or bullying;
- having a painful long-term health condition, such as arthritis;
- having a history of drug or alcohol misuse.
However, many people develop GAD for no apparent reason.
Who is affected?
GAD is a common condition, estimated to affect up to 5% of the UK population. Slightly more women are affected than men, and the condition is more common in people between the ages of 35 to 59.
How GAD is treated
GAD can have a significant effect on your daily life, but several different treatments are available that can ease your symptoms. These include:
- psychological therapy – such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
- medication – such as a type of antidepressant called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
There are also many things you can do yourself to help reduce your anxiety, such as:
- going on a self-help course
- exercising regularly
- stopping smoking
- cutting down on the amount of alcohol and caffeine you drink.
With treatment, many people are able to control their anxiety levels. However, some treatments may need to be continued for a long time and there may be periods when your symptoms worsen.
Symptoms of generalised anxiety disorder
Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) can affect you both physically and mentally. How severe symptoms are, varies from person to person. Some people have only 1 or 2 symptoms, while others have many more. You should see your doctor if anxiety is affecting your daily life or is causing you distress.
Psychological symptoms of GAD
GAD can cause a change in your behaviour and the way you think and feel about things, resulting in symptoms such as:
- a sense of dread
- feeling constantly “on edge”
- difficulty concentrating
Your symptoms may cause you to withdraw from social contact (seeing your family and friends) to avoid feelings of worry and dread. You may also find going to work difficult and stressful, and may take time off sick. These actions can make you worry even more about yourself and increase your lack of self-esteem.
Physical symptoms of GAD
GAD can also have a number of physical symptoms, including:
- a noticeably strong, fast or irregular heartbeat (palpitations)
- muscle aches and tension
- trembling or shaking
- dry mouth
- excessive sweating
- shortness of breath
- stomach ache
- feeling sick
- pins and needles
- difficulty falling or staying asleep (insomnia).
Diagnosing generalised anxiety disorder
See your doctor if anxiety is affecting your daily life or is causing you distress. Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) can be difficult to diagnose. In some cases, it can also be difficult to distinguish from other mental health conditions, such as depression.
You may have GAD if:
- your worrying significantly affects your daily life, including your job and social life;
- your worries are extremely stressful and upsetting;
- you worry about all sorts of things and have a tendency to think the worst;
- your worrying is uncontrollable;
- you’ve felt worried nearly every day for at least 6 months.
Talking to your doctor about anxiety
Your doctor may ask you questions about:
- any physical or psychological symptoms and how long you’ve had them
- your worries, fears and emotions
- your personal life.
You may find it difficult to talk about your feelings, emotions and personal life. However, it’s important that your doctor understands your symptoms and circumstances, so the correct diagnosis can be made.
You’re most likely to be diagnosed with GAD if you’ve had symptoms for 6 months or more. Finding it difficult to manage your feelings of anxiety is also an indication that you may have the condition.
To help with the diagnosis, your doctor may carry out a physical examination or blood tests to rule out other conditions that may be causing your symptoms, such as:
- anaemia (a deficiency in iron or vitamin B12 and folate);
- an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism).
Treating generalised anxiety disorder
Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is a long-term condition, but a number of different treatments can help. Before you begin any form of treatment, your doctor should discuss all your treatment options with you. They should outline the pros and cons of each and make sure you’re aware of any possible risks or side effects. With your doctor, you can make a decision on the most suitable treatment, taking into account your personal preferences and circumstances.
You can read more about the different kinds of treatments available on the Healthily website here.
You can read the full article in the Healthily Health Library where it was originally published. Read more from Healthily on their website, follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and download their app.
Are you looking to take some time for yourself, de-stress your mind and focus on your wellbeing? Experienced teacher Catherine Nasskau will be leading an introduction to mindfulness session for The Joy Club on Friday 17th September at 2pm; members can book a place here. Not yet signed up? Come and join The Joy Club for free and start enjoying a more joyful retirement.