10 Minutes

Edited & clinically reviewed by THE BALANCE Team
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Worrying is a normal part of life. Everybody stresses about something at some point in life, be it your electricity pills, an upcoming test, or troubles with marriage. But what happens if this worry becomes persistent and invasive? For individuals with a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), worry and stress can exaggerate so much that they take over their lives. Such people do not experience rational qualms based on actual risk. Instead, they tend to worry regardless of the outside stressors and cannot rationalize it because of the exaggerated level of perceived risk.

A generalized anxiety disorder can be debilitating but manageable with appropriate therapy, medications, and lifestyle management.

  • Generalized anxiety disorder affects approximately 6.8 million people in the United States.
  • Only 43.5% of the people diagnosed with GAD receive treatment
  • More than 31% of U.S. citizens experience an anxiety disorder at some point in life
  • Women are twice as likely to develop GAD as men
  • GAD and depression often co-occur, leading to further complications and difficulties in the management
  • The prevalence of generalized anxiety disorder in children between the ages of 3 to 17 years is 8.5%

The medical and nursing diagnosis for generalized anxiety disorder follows the DSM-5 criteria, which include:

  • Excessive worry and anxiety about multiple activities or events, frequently occurring for at least six months
  • Difficulty in managing worry
  • Presence of three of the following symptoms in adults or one or more in children for the past six months: restlessness, being easily fatigued, irritability, sleep disturbances, muscle tense, difficulty concentrating
  • Significant impairment or distress in occupational, social, or other areas of functioning due to excessive stress
  • Screening negative for substance abuse or a medical condition that might be causing these symptoms
  • No alternative medical explanation for these symptoms
  • Apart from the medical criteria mentioned above, other symptoms of GAD include the following:
  • Feeling tired or weak
  • Sweating and trembling
  • Rapid breathing
  • Nervousness
  • Feeling a sense of panic or impending doom
  • Headaches
  • Unexplained body pains or muscle soreness
  • Problems with digestive health

As with most types of mental health issues, there is no single cause of GAD. The disorder is likely to stem from a complex interaction between an individual’s biology and environment.

Mentioned below is a list of factors that might trigger this issue, including the biological causes of generalized anxiety disorders:

  • Differences in the function, structure, and chemistry of the brain, such as in the amygdala, an area of the brain that processes and regulates different emotions, including fear and worry
  • Differences in the way an individual perceives a threat
  • A family history of an anxiety disorder or other mental health issues
  • Personality traits, such as a timid temperament, a pessimistic outlook, or a tendency to avoid anything dangerous
  • Presence of a chronic medical disease or mental health disorder
  • A history of traumatic past, negative experiences, or significant life changes

Living with GAD may seem difficult, but it is entirely possible with the right decisions and steps. Mentioned below are some key areas to look into for the comprehensive management of generalized anxiety disorder:

Seeking Professional Diagnosis and Treatment

Living with generalized anxiety disorder can present many challenges, and without appropriate treatment, these challenges can quickly take the joy and happiness out of life. The best thing for anyone struggling with anxiety is to get a professional assessment. A qualified psychiatrist or another mental health professional can determine if someone is suffering from GAD with the help of multiple interviews, observations, and evaluation tools. Once an accurate diagnosis forms, treatment can officially begin.

Treatment for GAD is critical to living well with this chronic ailment. While anxiety disorders have no definitive cure, it is possible to manage them with treatment and self-care. Medication is an essential element of overall treatment for GAD. Most experts advise using benzodiazepines to manage short-term anxiety and antidepressants for long-term management. In addition to medications, patients with anxiety disorders also benefit from therapy. In particular, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the gold standard for managing anxiety. This therapy helps patients learn how to recognize negative behaviors and thoughts and replace them with positive ones. In addition to this, a comprehensive treatment plan for GAD also includes teaching strategies to cope with stress, promote relaxation, and practice healthy habits.

When it comes to living with generalized anxiety disorder, having a treatment plan is only the beginning. For best management with long-term benefits, it is imperative to be proactive about managing and preventing anxiety. A good treatment plan will teach patients numerous strategies for controlling anxiety after the treatment ends. After this, it is entirely on the patient to continue practicing these strategies in daily life, both at home and outside.

Replacing Negative Thoughts with Positive

One of the best things someone seeking treatment for GAD can do is to learn how to replace negative behaviors and thoughts with positive ones. This is where the role of CBT kicks in. Once patients embrace this therapy, they can learn how to use these strategies even after the formal treatment is over.

Keep in mind that changing negative thoughts require awareness. It is easy to worry about different things without giving them much thought. CBT helps people to become more aware of their worries and determine where they stem from. Once they have identified the cause, they can learn to change the thoughts coming out of it and replace them with positive ones. For example, they can change “If I go to that party, everyone will make fun of me” with “If I go to that party, I can meet a lot of friends I have not spoken to in a while, and if things get uncomfortable, I can leave.”

While it may take some time to master this skill, active engagement in CBT under the supervision of a good therapist can make things easier. The more someone actively tries to identify and recognize their negative thoughts and worries, the easier it becomes to manage their anxiety.

Using Relaxation Techniques

Another essential tip to include in the treatment plan for anxiety is the use of relaxation techniques. Having multiple practical strategies can help a person manage a stressful situation while keeping calm and reducing anxiety. Relaxation techniques combine the mind and the body to bring quick relief when anxiety seems to be building and threatening to take over. Some examples of relaxation techniques include the following:

  • Deep breathing, which involves taking slow and deep breaths to bring the heart rate down and induce a sense of calmness
  • Mindful meditation involves diverting the attention away from an anxiety-provoking element to something else, such as the beating of the heart or breathing
  • Progressive muscle relaxation, which involves slowly tensing and relaxing different muscle groups of the body to draw the mind away from anxiety
  • Autogenic relaxation involves imagining mantras, suggestions, and words along with relaxing, peaceful images of tension leaving the body to promote calmness in a stressful situation
  • Visualization and guided imagery, which works by imagining a calm or peaceful place and focusing on what it sounds, looks or smells like to minimize stress

Relaxation strategies can be particularly beneficial in reducing stress and controlling anxiety; however, they require some work practice. The more someone practices them, the more valuable these techniques will become in times of stress.

Introducing positive changes in life and following healthy lifestyle habits are crucial for creating a life with minimal anxiety and stress. Some people find that introducing significant changes is necessary to reduce the element of stress in their day-to-day life. For instance, some may consider leaving a job significantly contributing to their stress levels. Similarly, others may call it quits on a relationship that’s bringing more toxicity into their lives than positivity.

Following are some healthy habits and smaller changes that can promote a positive mindset while minimizing anxiety:

  • Eating healthy meals
  • Avoiding alcohol, drugs, and smoking
  • Getting regular exercise and maintaining a healthy body weight
  • Being more active in social life
  • Spending time doing things you love
  • Taking some time out to reflect in solitude
  • Getting enough hours of high-quality sleep

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