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When do you know your anxiety levels are a little more than "normal" and that you may have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)? While everybody experiences worry and concern, only about 5 percent of the general population has the lifetime, pervasive feelings of dread and apprehension that characterize GAD. For individuals with GAD, no matter how hard they try, they are unable to control this worry and fear. It becomes a heavy burden to them and their families.
Because GAD is sometimes concurrent with depression, panic disorder, social phobias, specific phobias and substance abuse, it’s critically important to receive the proper diagnosis from a qualified medical professional. Some general symptoms of GAD include:
- Excessive anxiety and worry for at least six months, on a number of topics. With GAD, individuals cannot remember a time when they did not have excessive worries, even in childhood. The worry is overwhelming—encompassing work, school, relationships, money, and family heath—and individuals find it difficult to control.
- The anxiety is accompanied by at least three of the following symptoms for at least six months: agitation (feeling edgy or keyed up), feeling tired easily/sleeplessness, difficulty focusing or concentrating, irritability, touchiness, becoming easily annoyed, muscle tension
- The worry or the physical expression of the worry causes extreme distress or impedes functioning in work, school, or home. There may be significant impacts in social functioning.
In GAD, the mental distress describes a constant feeling of worry and impending doom, no matter what the outward situation. It’s like a dark cloud has permanently hanging over one's head. The difficulty in focus and concentrating may create more worry, starting a negative cycle of worrying about the worry. It’s hard to feel good about life with this constant fear, and individuals may become grumpy and easily upset. This can also impact social functioning.
Much like those with post-traumatic stress disorder, individuals with GAD experience hypervigilance and a constant, high state of watchfulness. They expect the worst to happen, at all times, so they remain on alert for all threats. Individuals with GAD believe their fears are highly likely to come true, although the actual odds may be quite small. One aspect of therapy realistically analyzes at these inaccurate thoughts to help individuals rationally assess their danger in any situation. Fear is a powerful emotion, but our thinking brains can moderate the power of raw fear. Individuals with GAD are helped to look at their fear in a less emotional and more realistic way.
Individuals with GAD may experience panic attacklike symptoms, including shortness of breath and rapid heart rate, but usually their physical symptoms are less severe. Their fear may leave them with a queasy stomach, including nausea or bowel dysfunction. Some individuals with irritable bowel syndrome also experience GAD. Because of tension held in the body, individuals frequently report muscle tension and soreness. The list of physical complaints that accompany GAD can be extensive.
Any anxiety, whether short-term stress or life long, can have a profound effect on an individual's ability to get a good night's sleep. Sleep difficulty includes difficulty falling asleep, difficulty sleeping during the night, or waking early without being able to fall back asleep. With or without insomnia, individuals with GAD often report feeling fatigued and drained.