I have generalised anxiety disorder (GAD).
When I explain it to people, they often say something like, “Well, yeah, I feel anxious sometimes, too” – which, honestly, tells me they don’t really get it.
Feeling anxious once in a while and having anxiety are two very different things – the former constitutes normal day-to-day worries, while the latter begins with a thought or feeling that you become fixated upon, leading you down a rabbit hole of anxiety, sometimes coupled with legit physical symptoms (like a racing heart and profuse sweating).
“Anxiety is a normal part of life,” says Dr Crystal Lee, owner of LA Concierge Psychologist. “However, when your anxiety seems to extend to all aspects of your life, not just a current anxiety-provoking situation, you might have an anxiety disorder.”
Of course, my anxiety disorder, GAD, isn’t the only anxiety disorder out there – other anxiety disorders include panic disorder (a sudden and intense fear that comes and leaves within minutes, a.k.a., a panic attack) and phobia-related disorders (an intense fear of a specific thing, like spiders or closed spaces), per the National Institute of Mental Health.
But all anxiety disorders have a common thread: That anxiety is constant and interferes with your daily life – and it needs treatment. Here’s how to know if your anxious feelings are just that – or if you’re dealing with an actual anxiety disorder.
1. Your anxious thoughts don’t go away.
If you have an anxiety disorder, you tend to be become extremely anxious in situations where your friends or family might get only a little anxious, Dr Lee says. Like during a yearly family gathering, for example.
“Your anxiety also tends to be long-lasting or persistent; it never seems to dissipate,” she says. “When our anxiety begins impacting your daily life and ability to live a fulfilling life,” that’s when it becomes an issue, she says.
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2. Your anxiety is coupled with other symptoms.
GAD can also manifest as physical conditions, including muscular pain, restlessness and fatigue, among others, says Dr LA Barlow, of Barlow Professional Services PC.
And don’t be surprised if you also experience gastrointestinal issues, says Barlow. Anxiety disorders can lead to GI upset, including diarrhoea, cramping and heartburn, since your body is always in a heightened state of anxiety (there’s a reason why some people feel physically ill from nerves – the gut-mind connection is very strong, says Dr Barlow).
3. You can’t focus.
It’s not uncommon for people with GAD to be mistakenly perceived as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Dr Lee says.
That’s because individuals with anxiety disorders often have a difficult time focusing. “You are constantly in your head and get distracted by all the obsessions and negativity rattling around in there,” she says. “To an outsider, it looks like you have ADHD.”
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4. You actually worry about worrying.
Yes, many anxiety disorders are triggered by specific worries: GAD, for example, might make you worry about the unknown, like what your future holds; while a phobia might make you fear the immediate, like a spider dropping down in front of you.
But anxiety disorders can also make you have anxiety about having anxiety, says Dr Lee. It sounds exhausting, but for those with anxiety disorders, worrying can become cyclical and lead to even more worrying.
5. You’re always afraid of making the ‘wrong’ decision.
If you are dealing with an anxiety disorder, then Dr Lee says your decision-making skills become pretty much shot.
Anxiety disorders “make you indecisive because you fear making the wrong choice,” she says. “You fall into an endless pit of worries as you think about all the endless possibilities and outcomes to your decisions – and that worry can be paralysing.”
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6. You want to avoid all of the things.
It’s not uncommon for a person with an anxiety disorder to avoid situations – no matter the level of importance – in order to quell excessive feelings of anxiousness, Dr Barlow says.
But Dr Lee points out that that avoidance actually feeds into anxiety disorders, too. “The relief you feel from escaping anxiety-provoking situations reinforces anxiety,” she says. “Instead, you should learn to accept and cope with anxiety, which takes its power away.”
7. You find it impossible to snooze.
Anxiety has a way of taking your thoughts on a ride that leaves you unable to catch some shut-eye. (At the height of my GAD, I’d be up for several hours in the middle of the night.) According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), some level of sleep disruption is present in nearly all psychiatric disorders, including anxiety disorders.
8. You always see the glass as half empty.
It’s not uncommon for anxiety disorders to strip you of any optimism or hope for the future, Dr Lee says. “As a result, as you think about the different outcomes for your decisions, they often lead to one conclusion: It will suck,” she says. “The future seems bleak and hopeless. You feel out of control.”
So what do you do if you think you have an anxiety disorder?
If your symptoms checked a lot of the boxes above, there’s a good chance you might be dealing with an anxiety disorder. But before you make assumptions, Dr Barlow says it’s important to first make sure you rule out other possibilities, seeing as how symptoms of anxiety (like fatigue or stomach upset) can mimic other health conditions.
Once you have a diagnosis: “The most helpful thing you can do if you struggle with anxiety is to get professional help,” Dr Lee says, adding that sleep, eating healthfully and staying active can help alleviate symptoms of anxiety. Treatment for anxiety disorders can also include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), coping skills and possibly even medication.
There are two major categories of medication that are used to treat anxiety: Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, says Dr Lee. Antidepressants are seen as long-term treatments for anxiety, while anti-anxiety medications are a short-term way to relieve physical symptoms like muscle tension or shaking.
Yes, anxiety is a mental health condition that can be pretty debilitating, but “with the correct intervention, an individual can live a very fulfilling life,” says Dr Lee.
This article was originally published on www.womenshealthmag.com
Image credit: iStock