Generalized Anxiety Disorder: what it is and how to treat it

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is characterized by persistent and lasting feelings of anxiety. It can also be described as a sensation of constant internal tension and a prolonged inability to relax.

This sensation is accompanied by physical symptoms such as restlessness, difficulty concentrating, muscle tension and trouble sleeping.

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However, the foremost symptom is cognitive: worry. So much so that this disorder might be better named “excessive worrying disorder.”

Excessive worrying

Individuals with GAD feels concern about almost everything in their life: their present and future, their loved ones, even the state and health of their country.

Little by little, these people start to feel overwhelmed by these excessive concerns. Often, this fear can prevent them from doing many things. They feel the need to control as many aspects of their lives and the lives of others as possible.

On the other hand, they are perceived as being insecure, and all this impacts their self-esteem and mood. It is quite common to find symptoms of depression in people with generalized anxiety disorder.

In the realm of social and family affairs, they are sometimes viewed as the typical worried mother.  They are observant and attentive about all the occurrences around them, and they need constant information about the development of these events to calm their anxiety and constant concern. Although in principle this can be interpreted as a sign of kindness and concern for others, in reality what they experience generates a very real type of suffering that is beyond their control. 

Cause and prevalence

The age of onset of generalized anxiety disorder is usually around 20 years old, and it usually becomes chronic, although people experience more serious periods of GAD based on specific situations of greater stress in their lives.

The estimated prevalence of this disorder is 5% of the general population; it occurs more in women than in men, with a ratio of two to one.

Treatment of generalized anxiety

There are two well-established treatments to manage generalized anxiety: the pharmacological and the psychological, specifically the cognitive-behavioral.

Regarding pharmacological treatment, we are referring to benzodiazepines (that is, anxiolytics). Psychiatrists are the most appropriate people to advise this form of treatment, but general practitioners can help, too. It is important to point out that benzodiazepines should always be taken with medical control since they can generate a high dependency on the medication.

However, this treatment has its limitations, since it only focuses on one of the symptoms but does not provide the patient with the tools to understand the root of the problem.

That is why, as we have mentioned, psychologists apply cognitive-behavioral therapies to treat GAD.

The first part of this type of therapy begins with identifying the different concerns of the individual and grouping them based on their themes. Once these themes are finalized, we focus on the interest and goals of the person experiencing them.

The patient is taught relaxation techniques to be able to approach those concerns with a lower level of anxiety. Through training, the patient can finally approach these thoughts more calmly.

This process is repeated for each thematic group of concerns. Keep in mind that the themes are usually very diverse; therefore, a certain amount of time and involvement on the part of the patient is required to obtain results and achieve a comprehensive treatment plan.

Meditation and generalized anxiety

Recently, researchers have also demonstrated the effectiveness of more alternative therapies for generalized anxiety disorder such as meditation and relaxation.

The essence of these techniques lies in being able to contemplate our thoughts and worries without “letting them in.” Acquiring these skills takes a long time, but meditation has demonstrated its benefits from the beginning. In the learning process itself, skills are acquired that can be very beneficial to people suffering from a generalized anxiety disorder.

Through practicing meditation, you become aware of the bombardment of ideas and thoughts that you carry in your head throughout the day — all the information that, in reality, you “dismiss” as irrelevant. If we paid attention to all these extraneous ideas, our heads would not be able to attend to the most important parts of our daily life.

In this way, meditation helps to progressively increase your capacity to prohibit thoughts from dominating or paralyzing your life. Now, you get to decide what is really important and worth your attention.

Therefore, these techniques, when combined with others within a broad psychotherapy treatment plan, are presented as the best alternative to overcome generalized anxiety disorder.

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