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    Mental Health Awareness: A beginner's guide to generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)

    In our fast-paced world, understanding mental health issues like generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) is becoming increasingly important. This beginner's guide aims to shed light on what GAD is, its causes, symptoms, and the impact it can have on individuals' lives. It will also tackle common misconceptions surrounding GAD and provide practical coping strategies to help people who may be struggling. Whether you're someone experiencing GAD firsthand or seeking to support a loved one, this article will give you the fundamental knowledge you need towards helping with GAD.

    Lady stood against a wall looking upset due to suffering from generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)

    What is the definition of generalised anxiety (GAD)?

    Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), according to the NHS, is a persistent condition characterised by feelings of anxiety that cover a broad spectrum of situations and concerns, rather than being focused on a single event. Those affected by GAD often find themselves grappling with anxiety on a daily basis, to the extent that recalling a moment of relaxation can become a challenge. Even when one anxious thought is resolved, it can quickly give way to apprehension about another issue, creating a cycle of unease and worry.

    VIDEO: Diagnosing generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) - NHS Inform

    Below is a video by NHS Inform explaining what GAD is, how it is diagnosed and advice on how to speak to your doctor about it:

    How prevalent is generalised anxiety in the UK?

    Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a significant mental health concern in the UK. According to Mind, a leading mental health charity, approximately 6 in every 100 individuals in England are diagnosed with GAD in any given week. This statistic outlines the prevalence of this condition within the population. On a broader scale, Mental Health UK reports that over 8 million people across the UK are grappling with various forms of anxiety disorders at any given moment. Despite the prevalence of GAD, access to treatment remains a challenge, with less than half of those affected seeking professional help, as highlighted by the Mental Health Foundation.

    Is generalised anxiety the same as anxiety?

    While anxiety is a normal human emotion experienced in response to stressful situations, Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is a distinct mental health condition characterised by excessive and persistent worrying that extends beyond specific situations.

    In typical anxiety, individuals tend to worry about particular stressors or concerns related to the situation at hand. However, those with GAD may find themselves consumed by worry about a wide variety of issues, regardless of their relevance. This continuous state of apprehension can significantly impact daily function and overall well-being.

    A key distinguishing feature of GAD, according to Very Well Mind, is the nature of worry you experience, which is often described as "worrying about everything all the time." If you find yourself constantly overwhelmed, even when there's no immediate cause for concern, it may be indicative of GAD rather than normal anxiety. 

    Which health conditions is anxiety the main symptom of?

    Anxiety can manifest itself as a primary symptom for a number of different conditions, including generalised anxiety (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, 2019). Here are some other conditions in which anxiety is classed as a main symptom:

    • Panic Disorder: Characterised by panic attacks and intense feelings of fear or discomfort, panic disorder often involves sudden and overwhelming bouts of anxiety.

    • Phobias: Phobias are marked by irrational and excessive fears of specific objects, situations, or activities. Anxiety is a central feature of phobic disorders.

    • PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder): PTSD develops in response to a traumatic event and involves re-experiencing the trauma through flashbacks or nightmares, accompanied by heightened anxiety.

    • Social Anxiety Disorder: Individuals with social anxiety disorder experience intense fear or anxiety in social situations, often due to concerns about being judged or embarrassed.

    Misconceptions & Stigma

    What are common misconceptions of generalised anxiety disorder?

    Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is often surrounded by misconceptions that can harm the general understanding and support for those affected. Here are some common myths surrounding GAD, according to the Recovery Village:

    • People with GAD blow everything out of proportion.

    • Because it’s generalised, GAD isn’t that bad.

    • People with GAD fake panic attacks to get attention.

    • Generalised anxiety disorder is rare.

    • GAD is always obvious.

    • GAD has no physical symptoms.

    • People with GAD do not enjoy socialising.

    • All anxiety medications are addictive, so you shouldn’t take them.

    • Medication is the only way to manage GAD.

    • There’s nothing you can do to help someone with GAD.

    These myths can often be debunked quite simply, however, a general level of understanding is required, which is why beginner’s guides like this one are so important. 

    Signs & Symptoms

    What are the physical symptoms of generalised anxiety disorder?

    Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) can manifest with various physical symptoms according to the NHS, such as:

    • Dizziness

    • Tiredness

    • Palpitations (strong, fast, or irregular heartbeat)

    • Muscle aches and tension

    • Trembling or shaking

    • Dry mouth

    • Excessive sweating

    • Shortness of breath

    • Stomach ache

    • Nausea

    • Headache

    • Pins and needles sensation

    • Difficulty falling or staying asleep (insomnia)

    These physical symptoms can often accompany the psychological symptoms of anxiety and significantly impact an individual's daily life and well-being.

    What are the psychological symptoms of generalised anxiety disorder?

    Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) can affect various aspects of your psychological well-being according to the NHS, leading to symptoms such as:

    • Restlessness

    • A sense of dread or fear

    • Feeling constantly "on edge" or tense

    • Difficulty concentrating on tasks

    • Irritability

    • Withdrawal from social interactions to avoid feelings of worry and fear

    What behavioural changes can there be with generalised anxiety disorder?

    Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) can lead to various behavioural changes according to the NHS, including:

    • Withdrawal from social interactions: Individuals with GAD may avoid social gatherings or spending time with friends and family due to feelings of worry and fear.

    • Difficulty with work: GAD can make it challenging to cope with work-related stressors, leading to difficulty in performing tasks effectively and increased absenteeism due to feeling overwhelmed or stressed.

    • Taking time off sick: Individuals with GAD may find themselves taking sick leave from work more frequently due to the impact of anxiety on their ability to function in a work environment.

    • Increased worry and self-doubt: These behavioural changes can contribute to a cycle of increased worry about oneself and a decrease in self-esteem, further exacerbating symptoms of GAD.

    Recognising these behavioural patterns is essential for seeking appropriate support and implementing effective coping strategies to manage GAD.

    Which environmental influences can cause generalised anxiety disorder?

    Environmental influences can significantly contribute to the development or worsening of Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). These influences may include, according to the Mental Health Foundation:

    • Stressful work environment: High-pressure work environments, excessive workload, job insecurity, or conflicts with colleagues or supervisors can contribute to chronic stress and anxiety.

    • Educational environment: Academic pressure, competition, bullying, or discrimination in educational settings can create significant stressors for individuals, leading to the development of anxiety disorders like GAD.

    • Community environment: Exposure to discrimination, harassment, or social isolation within communities can contribute to ongoing anxiety, particularly among marginalised groups.

    • Traumatic events: Exposure to traumatic experiences such as accidents, natural disasters, or violence can also trigger or exacerbate symptoms of GAD.

    The Impact of Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

    How can generalised anxiety disorder impact on personal life?

    Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) can profoundly impact personal life, affecting various aspects of daily functioning and overall well-being, according to the NHS. Psychologically, individuals with GAD may experience persistent restlessness and worry, making it challenging to concentrate on tasks or maintain quality sleep. These cognitive symptoms can hinder productivity at work or school and strain relationships due to increased irritability or withdrawal from social activities. 

    Consequently, GAD can disrupt career advancement opportunities, lead to academic underachievement, and diminish overall quality of life by reducing enjoyment of activities and exacerbating stress levels. Recognising these impacts is essential for seeking appropriate support and implementing effective coping strategies to manage GAD and improve mental well-being.

    How can generalised anxiety disorder impact on physical health?

    Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) can exert profound effects on physical health, as the chronic stress associated with anxiety can impact various bodily systems. The continuous activation of the body's stress response can strain the nervous system, leading to symptoms such as increased heart rate and trembling. Furthermore, elevated levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline can contribute to cardiovascular issues such as high blood pressure and heart palpitations. Digestive disturbances such as stomach aches and nausea are common manifestations of anxiety-related tension, while the immune system may become compromised, increasing susceptibility to infections. Additionally, respiratory symptoms like shortness of breath can exacerbate pre-existing conditions such as asthma (Cherney & Wilson, 2023).

    Seeking Help

    When should you seek help for generalised anxiety disorder?

    Seeking professional help for Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) is crucial when anxiety begins to interfere significantly with daily functioning and quality of life. If anxiety symptoms start to impact performance at school or work, disrupt relationships with friends and family, or hinder engagement in everyday activities, the National Institute of Mental Health say it's essential to reach out to a healthcare provider or mental health professional. 

    Which professional services are available for depression?

    Several professional services and support groups are available to assist individuals experiencing depression. In the NHS, individuals can access a range of mental health services, including consultations with GPs, counselling, and psychiatric treatment. Therapy options such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), psychodynamic therapy, and interpersonal therapy are widely available through NHS services, private practitioners, or charitable organisations. 

    Charities such as MindRethink Mental Illness, and Anxiety UK offer valuable resources, support groups, and helplines for those affected by depression. Online forums and peer support groups provide opportunities for individuals to connect with others experiencing similar challenges. Seeking guidance from a GP or mental health specialist is crucial in accessing appropriate support tailored to individual needs and circumstances.

    Can therapy and medication help?

    Therapy and medication can be effective in treating Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and helping individuals manage their symptoms. If psychological treatments such as therapy haven't provided sufficient relief or if individuals prefer not to pursue them, medication may be offered as an alternative or adjunct treatment. Different types of medication, including short-term and long-term options, may be prescribed to address both physical and psychological symptoms of GAD. 

    Self-help Strategies for Generalised Anxiety Disorder

    Can self-help techniques help to treat generalised anxiety disorder?

    Yes, self-help techniques can be beneficial in treating Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Options provided by the NHS include:

    • Try a book or online course: Numerous resources are available to help individuals learn coping strategies, with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) being recommended by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).

    • Exercise regularly: Engaging in aerobic exercises like walking, swimming, or cycling for at least 150 minutes per week can help reduce stress and improve mood by promoting the release of serotonin.

    • Learn to relax: Relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, yoga, or pilates can aid in unwinding and managing anxiety.

    • Avoid caffeine: Limiting caffeine intake, found in coffee, tea, and energy drinks, can prevent exacerbating anxiety symptoms by reducing disruptions to sleep and heart rate.

    • Embrace healthy living: Prioritising a healthy lifestyle through regular exercise, a balanced diet, stopping smoking, and moderate alcohol consumption can enhance both physical and mental well-being.

    Could NHS Talking Therapies help you?

    Yes, NHS Talking Therapies can be a valuable resource for individuals experiencing Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). 

    VIDEO: Treatment for depression and anxiety | NHS Talking Therapies

    The NHS have created a video to explain how NHS Talking Therapies can help you to cope with anxiety, watch it below:

    Can mindfulness and relaxation help with generalised anxiety disorder?

    Yes, mindfulness and relaxation techniques can be beneficial in managing generalised anxiety Disorder (GAD). Research put forward by the NHS indicates that mindfulness practices, such as meditation and deep breathing exercises, can help reduce stress, anxiety, and symptoms of depression.

    Can building a strong support network help with generalised anxiety disorder?

    Yes, having a strong support group around you that includes friends, family, and other people such as work colleagues can be a beneficial way of combating generalised anxiety disorder. Alternatively, using a mental health support charity such as Anxiety UK, Mind or Rethink Mental Illness can provide support to all people suffering from a number of different mental health conditions. 


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