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A Loop of Worry and Restlessness: What Generalized Anxiety Disorder Feels Like

Aisha looks at the clock in the living room. It is 7:30 AM. In 2 hours, she has a meeting at the office. Nothing unusual, just the regular monthly meeting. This time, Aisha doesn’t even have a presentation to make. But she is very worried. Her heart is beating fast, her palms are sweaty and when her mother calls her to have breakfast an hour later, she refuses to eat saying she is feeling nauseous. Does this sound familiar? Do you find yourself worried and tense more often than not? Feeling anxious from time to time  in the context of a stressful situation is normal, however if you feel tense most of the time, such that it interferes with your day to day life and activities, you might be suffering from an anxiety disorder. Anxiety disorders form a group of disorders that are mainly characterized by some sort of worry or fear. Examples of anxiety disorders are Social Anxiety, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive compulsive disorder, Panic Disorder and different kinds of specific phobias. 

One of the most common anxiety disorders is Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD).  The name itself suggests that the anxiety is not in a specific context, but affects the person in all/general contexts.

 For Aisha, the meeting at the office is causing her anxiety. Her thoughts are running wild. If one were to see what was going on in her mind, it would be something like this. “What if the meeting does not go well? What if they ask me about my project performance?  I have the numbers ready, but what if the boss is not happy with them? And if they decide to fire me, what will I do? Should I start looking for another job? But who will hire someone who has been fired like this? Should I just take sick leave from work today? That way, I don’t have to worry about the meeting …but I have already taken 2 leaves this month, I cannot afford to take one more…God, What do I do?!”  She gets so bothered by it that she snaps at her mother the second time she calls her to have breakfast. What Aisha is having are symptoms of Generalized Anxiety.

Symptoms of Anxiety such as constant worrying, palpitations, restlessness, inability to focus can lead one to feel exhausted and frustrated
  • Constant worrying about day to day things
  • Difficulty in controlling the worry
  • Imagining worst possible outcomes for day to day events and thinking up solutions for each outome
  • Feeling impatient and on the edge
  • Perceiving situations as threatening even when they are not
  • Palpitations
  • Fatigue
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Nausea, diarrhea, headaches
  • Difficulty falling asleep/Sleep disturbances
  • Feeling restless, pacing around
  • Inability to concentrate and get work done
  • Difficulty in making decisions
  • Avoidance of tasks or situations
  • Getting irritated at people
  • Compulsive behavior

It is important to note that if these symptoms are present in a naturally anxiety provoking situation, then it doesn’t mean the person has GAD. Eg; Sweating, palpitations, being tense during or just before an important examination or interview is normal. GAD is when someone is tense and worried because of everyday occurrences or without any apparent reason Eg: continuously worrying about one’s own or a family member’s health, money matters, performance at school or work etc, imagining catastrophic outcomes out of usually harmless and non-dangerous situations. An example of imagining catastrophic outcomes would be to imagine that a loved one has met with a major accident because they are late from work.

It is also important to note that for it to be diagnosed as a disorder, the anxiety should be causing problems in a person’s daily life. For example, anxiety about work performance makes the person delay the task at hand, leading to waste of time, which leads to further fear of being able to finish the task.

GAD often co-exists with depression. 

Aisha’s meeting went fine, with no questions being posed to her about her performance. She did feel relief when the meeting was over, but after some time, when her boss said he would like to discuss a new idea with her, all the thoughts and worries came back. Aisha knew this happened with her all the time. If it was not her work, it was her health, or her parents’ health or her future. But she was always worried about something. She wondered why.  

Causes of GAD: What leads to people having anxiety? As it is with most mental health issues, anxiety does not have a single cause. Causes could be genetic, biological, environmental or a combination of all these.

Genetic: People with immediate family member/s with anxiety disorders are more susceptible to GAD. This doesn’t mean that everyone with an immediate family member with an anxiety disorder is sure to have GAD. Family history only indicates a slightly higher chance of it.

Biological: The human brain has a mechanism through which it warns the person in case of a dangerous situation. This is a protective mechanism. An example would be, you move out of the way of a speeding car immediately, which takes less than a few seconds. This is because of the brain’s ability to recognize danger and warn you about it. In people with anxiety disorders, this mechanism is overactive and makes them perceive danger or a threat where there may be none. This results in feeling anxious and tense. With time, these patterns get strengthened and lead to generalized anxiety. 

Environmental factors: Life events and experiences can lead to anxiety. Negative events during childhood, significant conflict in the home environment, or dealing with chronic illnesses can lead someone to have anxiety. 

Treatment: There is help available for Generalized Anxiety Disorder. In fact, all anxiety disorders are treatable. People suffering from GAD may be treated with medication, therapy or both. But this is a decision that can only be taken by a qualified psychiatrist. People on treatment report a significant reduction in their symptoms and improvement in their day to day functioning. Of course, support from loved ones and friends is always important. 

If you think you have symptoms of GAD, don’t hesitate to seek help from a psychiatrist. If you know someone who has GAD, encourage them to seek help and support them as much as you can.

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