What Is Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) And How Do You Cope With It?

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Most of us have, at some time or the other, felt “butterflies in the stomach”, a feeling of nervous anticipation before a major event. Examinations, job interviews, important presentations, wedding, the birth of a child, or even during the last few overs of a cricket match – we can feel nervous about the imminent situation and the outcome. Feeling nervous during life events is natural, and in a way demonstrates our eagerness to give our best to that particular event. But, not every person feels equally nervous in similar situations. How we react to a situation, and to what extent might our reaction contain a palpable manifestation of our feelings, depends on our personalities. Some people are more prone to nervousness, and some are rarely ever nervous. But if this nervousness shows up more frequently than circumstances dictate, and if it potentially disrupts or disturbs regular functioning, it may be termed anxiety disorder.

How is anxiety disorder different from nervousness?

Nervousness is a temporary reaction to a unique or unprecedented situation. You are going out on your first date with the girl you have had the longest crush on. Of course, you are feeling nervous, and this nervousness will make you check the mirror, your wallet, your shoes and even your watch umpteen number of times. But you are surely not going to call off the date just because you are feeling nervous! Once the two of you meet and the conversation starts flowing, all those butterflies in the pit of your stomach will vanish without you noticing it. You may have to worry about the venue of the second date later but you surely will not feel anxious before the second, third or subsequent dates.

Anxiety, when classified as a disorder, is actually an impediment that can prevent you from doing your work and leading your life satisfactorily. There is a constant soundtrack of premonitions buzzing in your head about what all can possibly go wrong in random situations, and not just in one or two exceptional situations. When you think of an elevator, you may start worrying about getting trapped in it due to power outage or technical malfunctions, or worst, imagine yourself hurtling down the shaft. Without even setting foot inside a lift, you may experience palpitations and heavy sweating. Such extreme and fearful visualisations may result in you avoiding the lift as much as possible, and using the staircase instead. Anxiety does not go away by simply avoiding one situation; it re-attaches itself to another situation and creates more panic. From worrying about the dangers of using a lift, you may suddenly feel anxious about being late for the meeting, or even about the weather turning bad the next day. Pathological anxiety is an endless cycle in which you get embroiled more and more with passing time. It is like a train that keeps jumping tracks but never stops running.

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What is Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and what are the symptoms?

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a mild mental illness characterised by mental and physical distress, agitation and obsessive worry felt by a person for random and unrelated situations over a sustained period of time. The answers to these questions hold the key to defining GAD –

  • Do you keep constantly worrying about everything and anything?
  • Once you have faced a particular situation which you were worrying about, do you feel relaxed?
  • When you are worried, do you feel physical discomfort, like tightening in the chest, increased heart rate, unusually heavy sweating, irregular or shallow breathing, trembling of hands, fidgeting, and/or difficulty in relaxing or falling asleep?  
  • Do you feel irritable and lose your temper more frequently when you are worried?
  • Do you find it hard to not think of things that make you feel worried?
  • Do you find it difficult to concentrate on work or other important aspects of your life because of your tendency to worry?
  • Do you suffer from any chronic physiological condition?
  • Were you ever diagnosed as being clinically depressed?

Symptomatically, GAD is characterised by the elements mentioned in the questions above. If most of your answers are in the affirmative, you should consider seeking professional help from a mental health expert.

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Treatment of Generalised Anxiety Disorder

As it is with mental health issues, the moment a person realises that he/she may be suffering from a mental illness, he/she starts resisting the possibility of being “mentally unwell” even before a proper assessment by an expert. Telling yourself repeatedly that it is just a little personality quirk that you can handle or correct on your own will not help you heal. Please note the word “heal”. GAD may develop due to a past incident or trauma that you may have no conscious memory of. Or one of your parents may have suffered from it and you may have picked up the traits from him/her. Or some part of your brain and neurotransmitters may be playing truant and triggering the relentless cycle of worry.  You will need the help of an expert to identify the root cause of your obsessive anxiety. Pathological worrying cannot be cured only by coercing your mind or through wishful thinking. The expert may recommend psychotherapy and medicines for you. It is usually a combination of both that has been found most effective in the treatment of GAD. Medicines help in preventing anxiety attacks while Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – a kind of psychotherapy, brings about changes by modifying the thought and behavioural patterns that trigger anxiety in a person. There is no rigid time-frame on how long it takes to cure GAD. The duration and intensity of treatment depend on the severity and history of the condition. However, the rate of successful treatment is extremely high in case of GAD. The key being proper diagnosis, right treatment protocol and optimal follow-through.

What you can do to help yourself

If you are suffering from GAD, first and foremost, worrying about your condition will not help you feel better. It will only make it worse. Follow these few tips to tackle the condition –

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1. Laugh often and live well 

Stress is the most silent and biggest contributor to anxiety. If you find yourself getting stressed over little hurdles that come up naturally in everyday life, take a step back and ask yourself whether it is really worth getting agitated over every minor obstacle? Surround yourself with people who exude positivity, and those who can make you laugh and help you calm down. Spend time interacting with them. If crowded places or too many people make you feel anxious, choose a quiet café or park and the company of a confidant. Invest your time and trust in a person who cares for you unconditionally and allow yourself to be led by him/her towards holistic wellness of the mind and body.

2. Mediate regularly

Meditation helps us relax and focus our energies on synergizing our body and mind. Keep 20 minutes aside for meditating daily. Sit comfortably on the floor in a room with minimal disturbances and close your eyes. Do not try to empty your mind of thoughts forcefully. If you do, you will be spending all your energy and concentration in keeping thoughts away. Instead, let the thoughts flow while you focus on your breathing. Mindful breathing is a great reliever of stress and helps alleviate anxiety attacks.

3. Follow a fitness regime

It has been seen that people who spend more time sitting in one place tend to develop anxiety more compared to those who are physically active. Exercising not only tones your body and makes you feel better about yourself, but it also helps in the release of endorphins, the feel-good hormones, and increases the levels of dopamine and serotonin which contribute to our “good-mood” significantly.

4. Be careful of the stimulants

Caught in the throes of anxiety, you may be drinking several cups of coffee in a day. While excessive caffeine intake will make you feel good for a while, it will also make you high-strung and more prone to nervousness. Ditto for alcohol and nicotine. None of these will help your cause, so they are best avoided or limited by moderation.

5. Sleep adequately

Irrespective of how much work you need to get done daily, compromising on sleep is not the way to go about it. Sleeping for an average of seven to nine hours every day is essential to keep your mind fresh and alert. Anxiety is known to reduce after an adequate duration of quality sleep.  

6. Take care of your health 

If you are suffering from other chronic medical conditions like hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular issues, thyroid or other hormonal imbalances, or depression, follow the treatment and lifestyle protocols to take care of your health. Physical conditions like these are known to make a person more prone to GAD.

Worrying is of no consequence, this we often keep telling each other. But as we are also aware, sometimes we cannot just stop the feelings from coming. Being nervous in certain situations is perfectly acceptable, as is worrying for certain people or things we care most about. But if that nervousness or tendency to worry has reached a point where you are no longer able to control it, and instead, it has taken over the controls of your life, you will have to find a way to oust the predator, the sooner the better.

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