Once you or a loved one can put a name to the face of anxiety that’s been rearing up inside, the next step is answering all your questions and busting any myths you’ve heard.
“But I can hardly sit still. I keep fidgeting, crossing one leg and then the other. I feel like I could throw off sparks, or break a window —maybe rearrange all the furniture.”
― Author Raymond Carver, “Where I’m Calling From: New and Selected Stories”
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) can feel like all of the above at the same time. And getting answers to “what is wrong with me (or them)” can sometimes lead to even more questions. Here are some answers for you.
GAD is a mental health condition characterized by habitual worry and anxiousness that may or may not be centered on any specific concern, trigger, or stress.
Symptoms can vary and overlap. They likely occur more days than not for at least
Q: I feel like I’m the only one experiencing this. Am I far-out?
A: Get into your average hotel or office building elevator at its ballpark capacity. Statistically, 2 to 3 of you in there have an anxiety disorder of some type.
Women are twice as likely to have GAD than men.
It appears that some people are genetically predisposed to developing the condition. Many others who’ve had childhood trauma may experience generalized anxiety later.
Q: Is this curable, or am I going to have generalized anxiety disorder forever?
A: GAD is a long-term chronic condition that can be readily managed.
More than half of the people who seek treatment report that their worries began in childhood or adolescence.
However, research tells us people with generalized anxiety were on average age
Generally, GAD doesn’t go away on its own. For most people, intervention and treatment are needed. Both mental health professionals and physicians treat GAD, but long-term, effective treatment of GAD will include both psychotherapy and medication.
Q: Chest tightness, heart racing, cold sweats: How can I be sure these physical symptoms aren’t really something medical that just hasn’t been diagnosed yet?
A: This is a natural concern for individuals with GAD and fits into the theme of excessive worry.
This worry is best addressed by establishing a relationship with a physician who you feel is listening to your concrete concerns and thoughtfully tailoring your treatment to your specific risks for having certain medical problems.
While it is true GAD often occurs alongside depression, substance use disorder, or other mental health conditions, an excessive and unreasonable series of tests and procedures to find medical conditions can be
You can take our anxiety symptom quiz now.
Q: Someone I’m close to let me know they’ve been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. How do I talk to them now? What do I say, or not say?
A: Indeed, as a connection to the person managing anxiety, you may feel like you’re walking on eggshells until you know how to approach them.
Communicating with someone who is experiencing depression or anxiety requires a measure of mindfulness to be effective.
Things to keep in mind are:
In the heat of an anxiety attack is not the time or place to communicate. Neither is in public or where much stimuli is buzzing around.
Our article revealing top tips to help make important decisions is also very helpful for communicating on important topics.
Most of us know someone can say the same sentence in two distinct tones and communicate different messages. Be mindful to stay neutral and even-paced in inflection and pitch. Uncharacteristically lower or monotones, faster cadence and louder volume insinuate negativity, so try to avoid these as much as your personal speech will allow.
If someone were to play emotional charades with you, you could probably mimic “unbelieving,” “irritated,” and “uncomfortable.” If you can demonstrate it, odds are someone with anxiety can also pick up on the nonverbal cues.
Keep in mind the phrases “calm assertive” and “open.” If eye contact, body language, and facial expressions are softened and at ease, so might the other person become.
There are two very productive types of listening you can use with general anxiety disorder: reflective and active listening.
Reflective listening paraphrases back to the other person what you understood them to have said to ensure message intended is message received.
Active listening also can reiterate what you got out of what the other person was saying but also uses strategies like:
- Improv-style minimal verbal cues: Think “yes, and…,” “mm hm,” “oh,” and the ever-insightful deliberate pause or comfortable silence
- Acknowledgment: For example, “I can hear how concerning this is for you,” or “Thank you for coming to me with this.”
- Feedback: Only if asked, letting them know how you’re processing the situation with “I” statements that are healthful, helpful, and wise.
Q: How do I talk about my anxiety? Should I?
A: There’s really two distinctions here: How do you communicate it to others, who you may feel need to know, and how you self-talk.
It’s said the wise seek counsel. But should we be sharing our worries to get perspectives or comfort? Clinical psychologist Michael Stein says not so fast.
Stein treats anxiety disorders specifically in his practice, as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder. He says getting someone else’s take feels better in the short term, but with anxiety disorders, your brain is likely wired to not stop creating “what ifs” and spinoff concerns until you have a concrete answer.
We live in the present, but anxiety and worry take up space in our future.
Stein advises his clients to stop speaking on the things worrying them. It’s a part of retraining the brain to withstand uncertainty, ambiguity.
Marriage and family therapist Kimberley Quinlan says instead talk to your anxiety. Acknowledge its presence, face the fear as a future concern, and tell it how you’re going to move forward anyway.
Q: Are there any lab tests or brain scans for anxiety disorders?
A: GAD cannot be detected through a blood sample or an X-ray. Neither can many diseases and conditions, actually.
Instead, generalized anxiety disorder is diagnosed based on information provided to a physician or therapist during a clinical interview.
Q: Does generalized anxiety disorder run in families?
A: Having a family member with GAD appears to heighten one’s risk slightly for developing it. The family influence appears to be related to both genetic and environmental sources.
There may be, for instance, a genetic predisposition for a person to be at greater risk for having generalized anxiety disorder, but it’s not something activated in everyone who has the predisposition.
Read about: Childhood Abuse, Complex Trauma and Epigenetics.
Q: I’ve heard some people say anxiety can be beneficial. How? Why?
A: Anxiety is a normal human function and, at low levels, can be a productive tool to shift our awareness and help us respond when need be.
“The message that anxiety is dangerous … needs to be eradicated completely,” according to Emily Bilek, assistant professor of clinical psychology specializing in anxiety disorders at the University of Michigan.
Focus on how anxiety is showing up, identify if it’s useful or a hindrance, and lean into solutions.
Q: I’m uncomfortable with formal treatment. Can’t I just clean up my diet, add exercise and stay away from caffeine and alcohol to make the anxious thoughts go away?
A: This is a myth, so it may be time to get comfortable with treatment and reframe how you view it.
Making healthy changes can certainly reduce anxiety, but it won’t cure the disorder. Avoiding stress triggers entirely — be it in diet or circumstances — is stressful in and of itself and isolating.
Regine Galanti, director of Long Island Behavioral Psychology, specializing in treatments for anxiety and related disorders, emphasizes how anxiety pushes past thoughts and sets off reactions all within the body.
These domino reactions sound like an alarm and override rational thought.
Stress responses are also like a fire hydrant: They must be turned off with professional help. In this case, a combination of treatments and cognitive therapies is what’s recommended.
Q: What do I do now? Tell people? Go on sabbatical? Try to cure myself, by myself?
A: First, GAD is a disorder to manage, not a communicable disease. It’s important to lean into a support system, not steer away from those who care.
Consider this article, which lists the best ways to support a loved one with a mental health condition. It could very well also be titled “… best ways to be supported by a community if you have a condition.”
Support is a double-sided coin that, if done right, can yield a hefty return.
One of our Facebook community members, Matthew R., who manages a condition himself, says it best: “Accept the diagnosis and cooperate with your caregivers. Don’t fight it.”
Generalized anxiety disorder is a long-term mental health condition that differs from panic attacks in that it gradually worsens when triggered by the stressors of life. Sometimes you feel it coming, sometimes you don’t.
Its symptoms resemble other medical conditions and can be diagnosed by talking with a health professional.
Generalized anxiety can be inherent in your family genes or a result of trauma. It can be managed by a comprehensive treatment plan, including a combination of talk therapies, medication, diet, exercise, and mindfulness.
It happens that 2-3 out of every 10 U.S. adults live with the disorder. If that’s you — or someone you know well — learning what triggers anxiety attacks will help. It’s best to maintain life as usual with regular social contact but prepare with tools to manage episodes of anxiety.
With proper treatment, perspective, and a healthy community around, you can manage anxiety and discover healthful, subtle ways it can be an asset to you.