Everyone worries a little from time to time, especially when life is stressful. Such behavior's perfectly normal. For some people, though, worry is a constant companion.
People who constantly worry about daily concerns, even in less stressful times, may be suffering from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), a mental health condition marked by excessive worry that lasts six months or longer and makes daily living difficult.
This type of dysfunctional worrying often starts when a patient is in middle age, thus the disorder is more common in older adults. GAD affects about 4 to 7 percent of adults age 65 and older. It often coexists with depression or other anxiety disorders, such as phobias.
Research indicates people diagnosed with GAD have abnormal levels of certain brain chemicals governing one's response to stressful or uncertain situations. This overactive fear circuitry in the brain can cause a person to view many situations, even harmless ones, as threatening.
Other signs and symptoms of GAD include the following:
- Inability to relax
- Muscle aches, body tension and headaches
- Insomnia or difficulty staying asleep
- Difficulty concentrating
- Gastrointestinal problems, such as diarrhea
- Trembling or twitching
- Shortness of breath
Several treatment options are available for people diagnosed with GAD. However, finding relief from the condition and its mental and physical symptoms may take some time. As often happens with some mental health issues, sometimes a combination of treatment approaches work best.
Cognitive behavioral therapy. This psychotherapy focuses on identifying and changing the patient's dysfunctional thinking patterns that reinforce her or his anxiety or reactions to stressful situations. Short-term treatment usually lasts about 12 weeks.
Medication therapy. Several categories of prescription medications can treat GAD and other anxiety disorders. Antidepressants considered for GAD treatment include the following:
- Venlafaxine (Effexor)
- Duloxetine (Cymbalta)
- Paroxetine (Paxil)
- Citalopram (Celexa)
- Escitalopram (Lexapro)
The anti-anxiety medication buspirone (BuSpar) can be effective for GAD and can be taken with antidepressants.
Other medications, called benzodiazepines, may be prescribed for short periods. This drug category includes these options:
Some medications may need to be taken up to two months to be fully effective. As noted earlier, a combination of medication and psychotherapy might work best for some patients.
Lifestyle adjustments. Some basic activities of daily life can help lessen the impact of anxiety. For example, exercise produces endorphins and other chemical changes that can calm both the body and the mind. Studies have shown that meditation, yoga, listening to music and getting massages promote relaxation and can help ease anxiety. Healthful eating, with a emphasis on regular meals and energy-boosting snacks, is helpful, as is avoiding caffeine and nicotine.
While stress can be a part of daily life, anxiety about what has been, what is and what might be should never be crippling--and doesn't have to be. With treatment and time, a person living with generalized anxiety disorder can find relief and enjoy life again.