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Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their life. People become anxious when they have to face a highly stressful situation like taking a test or going for a job interview. When one is anxious and under stress, the body reacts; hands become clammy, the heart beats a little faster; one can even feel lightheaded or dizzy. This is a natural, and necessary, “fight or flight” reaction! Anxiety in moderate doses is perfectly healthy. Worry can even be a good; it can motivate you to get things done or keep you out of danger.
However, some people become preoccupied with fear and worry, and the intense feelings of anxiety continue. If the anxiety continues for a long period of time, or is particularly intense, it may have a serious negative impact on that person’s quality of life. If this is the case, the person may have an anxiety disorder.
Anxiety is the most common mental health issue experienced by young people today. Anxiety disorders describe a wide range of issues and symptoms, and each person may experience anxiety differently.
People with generalized anxiety disorder typically experience anxiety more frequently and severely than the average person and it can last for hours or days, even when nothing seems to be causing it. The amount of time spent worrying is often out of proportion to the events being worried about, or the likelihood those events will happen at all. The worrying can affect a person’s ability to function in important areas of life like work, home, school and personal relationships.
Like all mental health issues, anxiety disorders are complicated. A mixture of biological and environmental factors can cause some people to develop an anxiety disorder.
Causes of and risk factors for generalized anxiety sometimes include:
- A family history of anxiety.
- Recent or prolonged exposure to stressful situations, including personal or family illnesses, becoming a new parent (postpartum), conflict etc.
- Excessive use of substances, including caffeine or tobacco (which can make existing anxiety worse).
- Being the victim of childhood abuse.
However, anxiety can be the result of a large number of factors, including genetic, psychological and environmental factors or experiences. None of these risks guarantees a disorder, and some people with anxiety may not have been exposed to any of them. This does not make their illness any less real.
Everyone has a different “story” and these differences, like personality, emotional makeup, life experience, biological response to stress, etc., may all influence whether or not someone will develop an anxiety disorder.
Generalized anxiety disorder is diagnosed when a person has experienced symptoms of persistent and excessive worry for an extended period of time.
The following list should not be used to diagnose yourself or someone else. It is only intended to provide general information. If you think you might be experiencing a mental illness, you should see your doctor.
These symptoms might not be present all the time, and two people with generalized anxiety may experience it in very different ways.
That being said, individuals with generalized anxiety disorder tend to:
- Anticipate disaster everywhere and worry excessively about major or minor concerns.
- Experience anxiety almost all of the time, and without a specific trigger.
- Have a feeling of dread that they just can’t seem to get rid of.
- Always be thinking about the “what ifs” and fear the worst in every situation, even if it is unrealistic.
- Have difficulty completing even the simplest daily tasks due to overwhelming anxiety.
- Experience trouble concentrating, constant exhaustion, and trouble relaxing or falling or staying asleep.
- Feel restless or wound up.
- Experience a lot of physical symptoms that are related to the worry, such as upset stomach, shaking, sweating, or rapid rate and breathing.
- Feel easily annoyed or irritated.
- Feel powerless.
- Avoid things, people, activities, or places they are worried about.
Notice that although anxiety begins psychologically, it can also affect you mentally and physically, too. Anxiety affects the whole person, in many aspects of their life.
It's a good idea for someone with generalized anxiety disorder to get help to cope and deal with symptoms. Otherwise their physical, mental and emotional health may be in jeopardy. Anxiety disorders can also lead to alcohol and/or drug abuse, family problems, depression, and in some cases, suicide.
Generalized anxiety disorder and agoraphobia: Some people who experience anxiety disorders can develop other complications. A person who experiences panic attacks or generalized anxiety might become so worried about their anxiety being triggered that they begin to avoid people, places or situations, to the point where it interferes with their ability to live their life. This avoidance can develop into agoraphobia, which is the extreme fear and avoidance of crowded spaces or enclosed public places that may lead you to panic and feel trapped.
Anxiety is treatable. For generalized anxiety or any other mental health concern, if signs or symptoms are interfering with your life in any way, or if you’re feeling significantly distressed, it’s time to seek help. You don’t need to wait until things get really “bad” before asking for help.
For instance, if sleep patterns, eating, relationships, school, work, or enjoyment of life is being affected, it’s a good idea to talk to someone. That someone could be a friend you trust, a teacher, your family doctor, a crisis line, or counsellor.
If it is a friend you are concerned about, they may resist help or not even recognize that they need it. They might need you to make the first step.
If you feel like you or your friend might hurt him/herself or someone else, it’s time to call emergency services.
Visit our Help Section to find out how to get help for yourself or a friend.
Like other mental health issues, generalized anxiety disorder and how it is experienced will differ from person to person. Because each case is unique, the treatment will likely be different for each individual.
A good first step is to see your family doctor in order to rule out the possibility of any other medical condition that may be the cause. If they think you might have an anxiety disorder, they may refer you to a specialist or talk to you about how they can help or treat your symptoms.
The most common forms of treatment for anxiety disorders include medication, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or a combination of the two. During cognitive behavioral therapy, you will learn coping strategies and ways to work through and understand harmful thoughts, feelings and behaviours with the help of a counsellor or therapist.
Medication can also be helpful to help stabilize someone enough to get the most out of therapy, counselling and living life. Every person is different, so if medication is used, it may take a while to find the medication that works best for you.
Sometimes spending time in a treatment clinic or hospital is necessary, while for others, outpatient (getting help from a professional without having to actually “stay over” in a hospital) is better.
If you have to wait to get an appointment, there are many places that offer support while you wait. Find out where to call in your area.
Along with treatment from your doctor or therapist, there are things you can do to help and support your own recovery.
Every story is different, and sometimes people need to try different types of supports before they find the right plan for them. Be patient, and don’t give up.
A person living with anxiety, like any other person, will benefit from maintaining wellness and having good supports in their life.
Supporting someone with any type of serious illness can be challenging.
Ways to help and support a friend or loved one who is living with generalized anxiety disorder:
- Know the signs and symptoms of generalized anxiety and other anxiety disorders.
- Encourage professional help for your friend when needed (see Help Section).
- If your friend is in the hospital, go and visit them if you are able. The hospital may be scary and overwhelming for them, and a friendly face can help. Make sure to ask about visitor rules first.
- Treatment is a process. Medications and therapy can take time to help. Be aware of this and try to be supportive as your friend adjusts.
- Be a sounding board. Listening without judgement and without trying to “fix” their problems can be incredibly helpful.
- Try not to say things like “calm down” or “it’s not a big deal”. Although what the person is worrying about may seem trivial to you, it is very real and distressing to them. Respect that, and be patient.
- When they are feeling calm, ask your friend how else you can help when anxiety strikes. It may be as easy as just providing a distraction, doing a breathing exercise, or asking them to do simple, relaxing things with you (like hanging out, watching a movie, etc.).
- Remain calm and help your friend to a quiet place if they are feeling anxious. Speak calmly and quietly, and try engaging them in a simple deep breathing exercise or other simple task (counting backward, getting them to describe 5 things they see/hear/smell/feel, placing their arms in the air, having them sit with their head between their knees, etc.).
- Set some boundaries for yourself, and take care. You can’t help someone if you’re feeling overwhelmed yourself.
- Stay calm and don’t take things personally. Sometimes anxiety can really distort how someone perceives conversations or situations. How someone reacts or communicates when they have anxiety may be confusing, irritating, distressing or even hurtful at times. They may be feeling overwhelmed and acting out, and it’s probably not about you.
See the Help Section for more info about helping a friend and self care.
The information on this page is a simple overview of a complicated health issue. For more in-depth information, please visit these resources and references or speak to a medical professional.
Ontario – call ConnexOntario to find out where there are mental health supports in your community.
Crisis – in any situation where someone is at risk of hurting themselves or others, call 911 or a local crisis line.
Please see the Help Section for more information and resources.
Facts about mental health issues and illnesses. It is not meant to replace a doctor’s advice. Please consult a medical professional.