It is normal to feel anxious when traffic goes from 60 mph to a screeching halt in seconds. Or when your child’s school gets lock downed for some local police activity. Or when the credit card bill is larger than expected. These are anxious moments and feeling anxiety is not unusual.
However, Maranda’s anxiety didn’t stop even after the anxious moment ended. Instead, it escalated. When the traffic picked-up again, she stayed at high alert convinced that she would be in an accident at any moment. After the school was no longer locked down, she believed that something terrible would happen and started to find ways to homeschool the next day. Seeing the credit card bill, she panicked and told the family that they would be eating rice and beans for the next three weeks.
This type of anxiety produces intense feelings of fear triggering a survival mode response. As survival mode kicks in, the executive functioning part of the brain shuts down to prepare for fight, flight, freeze, or faint. But this reaction greatly impairs decision making. The problem is that Maranda is so hypervigilant that she easily finds another anxious event within a day. This keeps her in a constant state of survival mode which increases cortisol and adrenaline. It takes good approximately 36-72 hours for these hormones to leave the body which does happen for Maranda.
The cycle has devastating effects on Maranda’s overall health. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) manifests mentally first and then physically. Usually, a person with GAD also has some stress-related health condition in addition to this disorder such as ulcers, stomach issues, indigestion, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, or other similar conditions. Ironically, it is the medical condition that often highlights the GAD.
What is this? GAD is a persistent and excessive worry about numerous things lasting longer than six months. The worry can be about small or large matters and often does not diminish when the matter is resolved. Usually, there is a worry about worrying or anxiety about getting anxious. It feels like it never goes away and there is nothing that makes it better.
What are the symptoms? The symptoms of GAD are:
- Feeling nervous, irritable or on edge,
- Having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom,
- Having an increased heart rate,
- Breathing rapidly (hyperventilation), sweating, and/or trembling,
- Feeling weak or tired,
- Difficulty concentrating,
- Having trouble sleeping, and/or
- Experiencing gastrointestinal (GI) problems.
What are some other conditions? Along with GAD, a person might experience panic attacks, social anxiety, separation anxiety, selective mutism, and/or phobias. It is not unusual for a person to cope with these feelings by becoming obsessive compulsive as well. This often turns into Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in which a person tries to hyper-control their environment because the anxiety feels so out of control. Maranda’s worry about getting sick turned into a fear of germs which caused her to clean her house daily with bleach.
What is the treatment? A combination of medication and therapy is best. The medication takes the edge off the anxiety, so it is more manageable while working through the therapeutic process. Depending on the person, cognitive behavior therapy or emotion-focused therapy often are very effective in managing the anxiety. The most important step, however, is accepting the anxiety and not fighting it. This process involves an awareness of the anxious triggers and retraining the internal mental dialogue.
What if you are married to someone with this? Getting them into treatment is imperative for the longevity of your marriage. Often, GAD is so overwhelming that it puts unnecessary strain on even the best of relationships. This condition is made better with professional intervention to explain the process, teach new techniques, and set reasonable boundaries. Resist the urge to dive into every anxious moment your spouse might have as this will exhaust you and them. Here are some more suggestions:
- Keep fears at a distance. Allow the anxious person to express their fears but don’t absorb it.
- Don’t add to the worry. Remember that the anxious person’s fear does not need to spread. Don’t feed it.
- Step away. When the downward spiral of anxious thinking takes over in an obsessive manner, walk away. Stepping away is self-care.
- Don’t replay. Try to come to a decision quickly and then stop replaying the conversation.
- Find calm. After an anxious engagement, find some calm. A personal favorite of mine is going outside and breathing in a natural environment.
- Don’t reengage. There is no need to rehash the moment if the anxious person is done. Leave it be or things might get more intense on the second go around.
There is always hope for a person with GAD. Education is the best start and a proper diagnosis is essential. After treatment, a person can recover from GAD and live life without constantly being in survival mode.