By Vaila Bhaumick

Social distancing’, ‘self-isolation’, and ‘lockdown’—words that have been hurled into our vocabulary by the onslaught of COVID-19. If simply reading these words quickens your heart rate or brings on a panic attack, you’re not alone. These things are good for slowing the spread but bad for mental health.

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is one condition which will undoubtedly be exacerbated by this global pandemic. As we all know, life can be worry-inducing, and occasional anxiety is ‘normal’ (a term I use with trepidation); however, GAD goes beyond that ‘healthy’ level.

What Is GAD?

GAD describes a state in which a person experiences anxiety that is not easily controlled, and so interferes with everyday life. Sufferers tend to worry intensely about health, money, family or work, and often anticipate disaster. However, the worry is usually unwarranted and unprovoked and can be triggered by something as simple as just getting through the day.

GAD affects marginally more women than men, and generally appears between the ages of 35-59, although it can begin in the teenage years. Children and teenagers often worry excessively about their performance at school—in sports or during exams. Later in life, the ‘worry list’ can become extensive, and the crippling anxiety worsens during times of stress, such as physical illness or relationship crises.

It is different from other mental health conditions, but sufferers of depression may experience anxiety, and individuals with phobias feel anxious about one particular thing. GAD is characterised by anxiety about many aspects of life over a long period of time (6 months or more).

Signs And Symptoms Of GAD

There are many symptoms associated with GAD, but the main characteristic is severe, unwarranted worry which is “debilitating, intrusive, excessive, and persistent”.

As with most disorders, GAD has physical and psychological symptoms which can manifest in any combination in different people. It is vital to pay attention to your own body and notice when certain thought patterns or emotions are teamed with bodily sensations.

The following list isn’t exhaustive, as GAD can produce a myriad of symptoms, but, here are some of the main signs to look out for:

Psychological:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Irritability
  • Easily startled
  • Feeling ‘on edge’ or restless
  • Constant feelings of dread
  • Avoidance of stressful situations

Physical:

  • Fatigue or extreme tiredness
  • Heart palpitations
  • Sweating and dry mouth
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • Numbness or tingling sensations
  • Headaches, muscles aches, stomach aches or unexplained pains
  • Difficulty swallowing

What Causes GAD?

Research is ongoing as the cause of GAD is not yet fully understood. That said, it is likely that certain environmental, genetic and physiological factors contribute to the onset of GAD, namely:

  • A family history of anxiety disorders passed on genetically via your parents
  • A history of trauma or extremely stressful experiences
  • Overactivity in the part of the brain that controls fear and anxiety
  • A chemical imbalance in the brain which regulates mood
  • Having a chronic, painful health condition
  • A history of substance abuse
  • Childhood adversity or parental overprotection

It is also essential to recognise that if you are experiencing GAD-like symptoms, there may be an underlying physical reason for it. These include gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD), thyroid disorders, heart disease or menopause, making it important to advocate for appropriate tests to be done before any diagnosis. 

Getting Help

If you think you may be suffering from GAD, there are treatment options that can help you limit the often debilitating effects it has on your daily life. Psychotherapy or ‘talk therapy’ is regularly recommended as a course of action, particularly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT is “based on the concept that your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations and actions are interconnected, and that negative thoughts and feelings can trap you in a vicious cycle.” It focuses on the now, not your past, aiming to find practical ways to improve your state of mind. The relationship with your therapist is central to the success of CBT.

Medications, such as anti-anxiety meds or anti-depressants, can also be helpful for GAD. Be aware of the potential side effects before embarking on a course, being careful to research any prescribed drug.

For some, medication or psychotherapy alone may be enough to counteract GAD but can take time to show results. You can also help yourself by exercising regularly, being in nature, eating a healthy diet, doing yoga or meditation, and perhaps above all, talking with a trusted friend or relative about your worries and fears.

Which brings me back to the start of this article. At the moment, this quarantine feels never ending, is fraught with social isolation, loneliness and extreme uncertainty about the future. If you already suffer from a condition like GAD, it is almost certain your mind and body are in overdrive.

And you know, that’s ok. Anxiety is a normal reaction, and unfortunately, a sign of the times. Be compassionate towards yourself, seek help from an online therapist if you can, and try to stay connected to the people and things you love.