Everyone experiences fear and anxiety at some point in life, and your fear and anxiety can last for a short time, then pass or it can linger. You can actually get stuck in a worry loop wondering, “What if?”
If your fear and anxiety lingers, then you know it can affect your ability to eat, sleep, concentrate and enjoy life, all while overshadowing healthy thoughts, making you a prisoner to a constant stream of worries that limit your ability to be productive and healthy.
Today, it is estimated more than 40 million people in the United States are affected by anxiety — from preschoolers to teens to those 20 and older. And sadly, millions of people don’t understand anxiety — from knowing what it is, what steps to take, what pitfalls to avoid when managing it, how to support those who are battling anxiety and how to help others in understanding it. I am on a mission to help bring important information about anxiety to you.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Anxiety is that feeling of worry, nervousness or unease you get — typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome. It’s part of your body’s natural survival response to danger or threats to your life that causes neurological processes that can cause feelings of worry and fear along with corresponding physical changes that enable you to fight, flee or freeze.
You experience anxiety in the same way with perceived threats such as job interviews, presentations, tests, relationships, finances or uncertain outcomes that are not necessarily physically harmful. When properly harnessed in these situations, anxiety can be helpful, motivating and exciting you to perform at your best — helping you to prepare mentally and physically to take the best course of action.
However, when fear and anxiety linger on and interfere with your daily activities and healthy routines (i.e., sleeping, eating, concentration), that’s a problem, and physicians call this kind of problem a disorder.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD): A person who worries excessively and unrealistically about a number of events or things occurring more days than not, for at least 6 months, or more, may have GAD. It’s not the worries that are unrealistic, but the extent of the worrying. For example, it’s not unrealistic to worry if your child is a new driver and is a few minutes late getting home. However, it’s a problem if this causes a rising sense of worry and an inability to stop fretting and thinking about awful possibilities.
It is also a problem if you have excessive anxiety and worry about a number of events or activities while finding it difficult to control the worry. Or, you experience anxiety or worry with three or more of the following six symptoms for more days than not for six months:
• Restlessness, feeling keyed up or on edge
• Being easily fatigued
• Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
• Muscle tension
• Sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep, poor quality)
These feelings or symptoms cause significant distress in social, occupational or other important areas of functioning. And, in some, everyday life seems overwhelmingly challenging or unmanageable.
Also, of note, although GAD is rooted in our minds, it is accompanied by a number of physical symptoms, such as a racing heartbeat, chest pain, shortness of breath, muscle pain, fatigue, sweating, tremors and numbness or tingling of extremities. All of these are non-specific, meaning they can also result from a number of different medical conditions, which can lead to a misdiagnosis.
Risk factors for GAD? No one is immune from the effects of GAD. However, women are diagnosed twice as often as men and experts believe that hormones, cultural expectations and demands, and an increased willingness to see their doctors and acknowledge anxious feelings, contributes to this.
There are also genetic and environmental factors. For example, GAD tends to run in families and may result from family dynamics such as poor coping skills, financial pressures growing up, chronic illnesses or disabilities, divorce, or abuse (mental, emotional, physical, or alcoholism or drug use). And, stressors such as loss of a loved one, the end of a relationship, unemployment, and health conditions can result in anxious feelings that become debilitating.
Standard medical treatments? Understanding and a proper diagnosis of GAD are the beginning to living a life free from crippling anxiety. Your treatment decision depends on how severe your anxiety is, personal and cultural factors, and geographically, meaning how healthcare professionals in your area consider the best way to manage. It’s important to work with trusted sources to determine what is the best plan of care for you and to establish goals and measurable results. Life was not meant to live anxiously, and there is much you can do.
Currently, the two main treatments are psychotherapy and medications.
And, I would like to add a third — your lifestyle choices.
Psychotherapy, also referred to as “talk therapy” or counseling, psychotherapy involves working with a trained mental health professional to reduce your anxious symptoms. Many therapists engage their patients in cognitive behavioral therapy, which can be described as “modifying dysfunctional emotions, behaviors and thoughts.” It focuses on solutions, by changing misperceptions, unhealthy thoughts and destructive behaviors with the proper tools, strategies and problem-solving skills. Generally, it is intended to be a short-term treatment.
In some cases, your health care provider may feel medications are necessary while you undergo psychotherapy. Medications may be appropriate for a short period of time while dealing with the underlying cause. Currently available medications do not cure anxiety but instead serve to relieve some of the symptoms. Thus, long-term use only serves to mask the issue. In addition to potential side-effects, certain medications can be addictive and dangerous, even deadly, when combined with other sedative medications, alcohol or pain killers.
Lifestyle behaviors to help breakthrough anxiety levels: Managing GAD is complex, and there are trained mental health professionals that will work with you to formulate the right plan and achieve long-term success. While doing so, there are actions you can take — whether you have been experiencing anxiety and worries for six months or a week — starting today to help ease your anxiousness. I want to underscore that anxiety is real and ignoring it isn’t the solution. You can take active, effective steps to manage your anxiety:
• Eat nutritiously to attain the right vitamins and minerals such as vitamins B and D, omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, zinc, iron and selenium. They play an important role in maintaining calm and mood balance. Fruit and veggies, fatty fish, nuts, oysters, grains, eggs and dark chocolate are rich in these nutrients.
• Avoid “fake” foods. Additives such as dyes or other chemicals disrupt normal nervous system function and lead to increased anxious symptoms.
• Eat three square meals. Skipping a meal can lead to low blood sugar levels that can send our body into a panic mode, thinking it is starving.
• Stay hydrated. Dehydration also elicits a stress response in our body and anxious feelings. And because our brain is 80% to 85% water, when dehydrated, it interferes with its proper function.
• Make sleep a priority. Deprivation can ignite areas in the brain associated with emotional processing and mimicking the abnormal nerve activity seen in anxiety disorders. In other words, lack of sleep can cause anxious feelings even in those who do not experience anxiety regularly.
• Work physical activity into your everyday routine. Even short bouts of activity can alleviate anxiety for several hours.
• Manage stress. If you are living with chronic stress, you are putting your well-being and anxiety levels at risk. Spend 15 minutes a day acknowledging your top stressors and concerns in a tangible way, identifying actions, so they don’t balloon to an unmanageable size. Take time, unplug, meditate, schedule time with a hobby or outside in nature.
• Exercise your mind. Building mental strength requires healthy habits like quieting your brain. Don’t ignore facts but make an effort not to overthink or allow thoughts to go unchecked, excessively thinking about threats (worry loop); replace negative thoughts with positive ones; practice gratitude and mindfulness; and give-up unhealthy thoughts such as avoiding pity parties, cutting-back on whining, reliving imaginations and not having clear boundaries.
• Talk to your family physician if you have GAD symptoms, or a trusted source if you struggle with anxiety, fear or any of the above.
While everyone feels anxious at some point in their life, you must create a foundational lifestyle that treats the anxiety you have while keeping the incoming waves of stress from upsetting your day-to-day balance.
Dr. Nina Radcliff, of Galloway Township, is a physician anesthesiologist, television medical contributor and textbook author. Email questions for Dr. Nina to email@example.com with “Dr. Nina” in the subject line.
This article is for general information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions and cannot substitute for the advice from your medical professional.