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General Anxiety Disorder: How to recognize it and tips for coping

General Anxiety Disorders (GAD) are a combination of an individual’s overwhelming fear and anxiety controlling their ability to function socially, creating behavioral instabilities and dysfunction in their relationships. Those who suffer from GAD seek comfort in various defense mechanisms and distance themselves from situations that have the potential to trigger an episode. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Fifth Edition (DSM 5) and for the purpose of this analysis, “fear is the emotional response to a real or perceived imminent threat, whereas anxiety is anticipation of a future threat” (2013).

General Anxiety Disorder has the potential to manifest in various types of anxiety disorders. Those who suffer from GAD have an over active ideation of disaster in everyday life events. They worry excessively about finances, work, family relationships and well-being, household responsibilities and their children well into adulthood (DSM 5, 2013). Many of the concerns of clients suffering from GAD occur simultaneously, causing great dysfunction in their ability to complete or stay focused on menial tasks and especially projects that require attention to detail. Additionally, GAD has longevity and occurs frequently in a client’s history.

Symptoms of GAD are not always physical. General anxiety disorder clients are more likely to express difficulty in “social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” (DSM 5, 2013). As a result, an employer, family member or friend might refer the client to therapy. Through assessments (i.e. self-reporting, behavioral observation, structured interviews and even personality inventories) a mental health therapist will be able to interpret additional symptoms of restlessness, fatigue, feeling tense, sleep deprived, irritability, and difficulty remembering simple details or concentrating. Therapists often find that GAD sufferers meet the provisions for comorbidity with other anxiety disorders and depression. It is important therefore to assess the genetic, behavioral and environmental context the client, especially when working within family systems.

Epigenetics studies the way in which genes are transformed by environmental factors without actual change to the gene itself. Women are twice as likely to exhibit symptoms of GAD than men. While genetic indicators are presumably implicit in the development of anxiety, parental environment is an even greater factor. It has been reported that children with parents who are overly anxious and interpret ambiguous situations as harmful more often than not, tend to become clients experiencing anxiety disorders. Considering that women seem to be the caregivers and nurturers in many family systems, it has been deduced that the environment created by these households has the potential to manifest in GAD. A mother who is overly anxious about what many might consider simple activities or exhibits perfectionistic tendencies may have a child who experiences great pressure to conform to what is expected in society and not gain a sense of self-confidence and self-efficacy.

Each person is born with the capacity to make choices, while living a life of self-awareness and fulfillment. Societal influences and environment are instrumental in reinforcing development thus, the clients’ surroundings offer a number of opportunities to combat GAD that are often taken for granted or avoided for fear others might see their anguish. Here are a few tips for overcoming GAD …

  1. Get out and be with friends and family. Face-to-face interactions with those who are optimistic, smiling, eager to discuss growth and able to tackle failures can offer moments of levity and learning. This is often placed in the category of “fake it till you make it”. Sometimes small things are said or done in the right circle of people that can spark a moment of inspiration or provide a solution.

  2. Limit social media and news broadcasts. This can be challenging in today’s tech saturated environment, however, the less negative and stress filled information received the better. This does not mean walking around in a fog, unaware of the importance of world dynamics, it simply means monitoring the level of influence media has on your mental and physical wellness.

  3. Exercise. Take a yoga class, cycle, go for a walk or practice mindfulness. Not only will you raise your endorphins and feel energized, you might meet others who desire a healthy lifestyle. Mindfulness allows the ability to present in the current moment and focus and the immediate situation. It draws the mind toward clarity and opens the heart to receive peace.

  4. Rate the level of devastation the challenge will inflict. This can be difficult. In the moment, it may feel as though the world is crashing around you but on a scale of 1-10 you will locate and narrow your focus, becoming more strategic in your thinking.

  5. Remove items from your plate that do not have to belong to you. Can your teenage children eat grilled cheese and soup (they make for themselves) for dinner rather than filet mignon? Can you donate financially to the bake sale rather than making homemade cupcakes with triple fudge icing and sprinkles? Do you have to give money to family and friends who may bad financial decisions? I have to and I should have the potential to create momentous anxiety.

  6. Consider therapy to help with deeper challenges that you just cannot wrap your head around. A good therapist presents an environment that is non-judgmental, offers open communication and is sensitive to client experiences.

The author, Jeannelle Perkins-Muhammad, is a Marriage and Family Therapist located in Charleston, SC. and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Capella University. Her therapeutic approach recognizes that, the family is a system much like the inner workings of a clock; if there is one component broken or malfunctioning, it will affect the entire system. Even as an individual client comes to therapy, she notes that the invisible family enters with them. Ms. Perkins-Muhammad is a military spouse of 18 years with two spectacular adult daughters. She says of her blended family, “We are a smooth brew with a teeny unexpected, yet delightful jolt at the end”.

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