Anxiety is a normal human emotion that all of us experience. In small doses, anxiety is useful: it serves as a warning when we’re in danger, and can help to energise us when the stakes are high. But for people, experiences of anxiety are much more intense and debilitating. We might feel anxiety that doesn’t match up to the threat we face in the world, or we might feel its effects so strongly that it interrupts our day-to-day functioning.
If anxiety is causing you a lot of distress and impacting your life, it’s possible that you might be experiencing Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). If you’re not sure what that means, this article outlines everything you need to know about GAD, from its symptoms and diagnosis to treatment.
Remember: you’re not alone. If you’re struggling with anxiety, Cerina is here to support you.
What is Generalised Anxiety Disorder?
Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is a long-term mental health condition where people experience a heightened sense of worry that they find difficult to control. People with GAD are constantly anxious and worry about even very small things. They may even worry about being worried. Because the anxiety is not focused, it can occur in response to anything, so the person is constantly on the alert for problems. This ‘hypervigilance’ can result in feeling distracted, tired, irritable or restless, as well as sleep problems, headaches, light-headedness and muscle pain.
GAD can have major impacts on an individual’s ability to function, with negative effects on work, social interactions, studies and many other aspects of life.
Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental health problems in the UK, and it’s thought that 1 in 20 people in the UK are living with GAD. Although anyone can experience an anxiety disorder, research shows that prevalence is slightly higher in women, who are 1.5 times more likely to experience GAD than men throughout their lifetime.
When does Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) occur?
Symptoms of GAD can start at any time, but it's most common in people from the ages of 35 to 55. There are many different possible explanations for why someone might develop GAD. Some of the risk factors include:
- A family history of mental health conditions or anxiety disorders specifically
- Exposure to difficult life events or stressful environments
- A history of drug or alcohol misuse
- Cognitive factors (i.e. patterns of thinking) can also be a risk factor for GAD. For example, individuals with GAD tend to perceive ambiguous situations as threatening, and to focus excessively on perceived threats.
While these risk factors might increase someone’s likelihood of developing the condition, it’s also possible to develop GAD without experiencing any of these.
What are the symptoms of Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)?
Symptoms of GAD will vary from person to person, and can include both physical and mental effects. Common symptoms include:
- Constant, often disproportionate levels of worry or anxiety
- Not being able to stop worrying about things
- Difficulty concentrating or sleeping
- Feeling dizzy or experiencing heart palpitations
- Preoccupation with future plans, and anticipating negative outcomes
Diagnosing Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
GAD is diagnosed by a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist, using a clinical screening schedule in combination with screening tools designed to measure anxiety symptoms. The most common of these is called GAD7. When you take the GAD7, you’ll be asked lots of questions about how anxious you’ve been feeling in the last two weeks. Your score on the questionnaire will determine whether or not you meet the criteria for GAD.
GAD can sometimes overlap with other mental health conditions, such as mood disorders and other anxiety disorders. In some cases, a healthcare practitioner may also want to run physical tests to rule out other conditions.
Prognosis of Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
The outlook for GAD varies depending on the person and on the severity of symptoms. Short-term GAD might be easier to treat, while if someone has been experiencing symptoms for many years, they may require a more complex form of treatment (for example, a combination of therapy and medication) over a longer period of time.
For many, GAD is a long-term condition that can be managed throughout one’s life, and may rise up again during difficult life events.
Unfortunately, it’s thought that only half of people affected with GAD seek treatment. This means that GAD often goes untreated and unrecognised.
Treatments for Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
There are several possible treatments for Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), including talking therapies, medication and digital therapy tools. Here’s a bit more information about the two most common treatments for GAD:
Medication is often prescribed to people experiencing the symptoms of GAD. The medication prescribed is usually a kind of antidepressant known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (or SSRIs for short). For a more short-term medication plan, medication might be prescribed to simply target the condition’s physical symptoms. These are commonly called anti-anxiety drugs.
The main downside of medication is that it can have side effects, so other treatment methods (like CBT) may be preferable for some.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has been shown to be effective long-term for treating Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD).
CBT helps you recognise and challenge unhelpful thought patterns, beliefs and behaviours that might be contributing to feelings of anxiety. It’s based on the idea that your thoughts impact your feelings and behaviours. So by challenging anxious thoughts, you can also reduce the behaviours that reinforce your anxiety and ultimately feel less anxious. It also equips you with strategies to help you better manage your symptoms.
CBT can take place face-to-face with a therapist, but it’s also something you can work through yourself if you find the right tool. In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that digital CBT can be effective for managing the symptoms of GAD, allowing you to work through CBT sessions in your own time.
Cerina provides online CBT for anyone in the UK. You can find out more and download the Cerina app here.
How to prevent Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
Since the cause of GAD isn’t fully understood, it’s not always possible to prevent GAD. However, there are things you can do to help limit the likelihood of the condition developing or getting any worse:
Seek professional help
Diagnosing anxiety disorders early can help to minimise the effects of symptoms, before the condition becomes severe. We recommend seeking professional support from a qualified mental health practitioner to manage your symptoms and also help you rule out the possibility of any other conditions.
Try self-help tools
There are lots of things you can do yourself to help protect yourself against the negative effects of GAD. These include:
- Stopping smoking
- Exercising regularly
- Looking after your physical health
- Limiting your caffeine intake
- Learning relaxation techniques like breathing and grounding exercises
- Trying an online self-help tool
- Finding a support group
Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a serious mental health condition that can negatively impact someone’s life. If you think you might be experiencing GAD, it’s important to get support from a qualified professional, who can help you diagnose the condition and help you develop tools to manage your symptoms.
Treatment for GAD is possible, but can take time and often involves a combination of measures. In some cases, lifestyle changes, relaxation techniques and improved coping skills can provide significant support to help people recover.
If you need support, Cerina is here. The Cerina app provides online CBT, designed by psychologists, that you can access in your own time from the comfort of your home.