Anxiety, as defined by the National Institute for Mental Health, is a chronic mental health disorder in which people display excessive worry about everyday things like work, their health, social interactions, and other activities of daily life. While it is normal for people to have some anxiety as circumstances change throughout life, feelings of uncontrollable worry on most days for six months is considered clinically significant anxiety. Symptoms of anxiety don’t always conform to our stereotypes, but unfortunately, many people still associate mental health issues in general with personal weakness. Which likely explains why only about 37% of people seek treatment for this disorder.
According to numbers from the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, about 40 million adults in the United States have anxiety disorders. That’s about 18.1% of the population! While there are several specific subtypes of emotional disorders, we’ll be referring mainly to GAD — Generalized Anxiety Disorder — throughout this article.
Symptoms of Anxiety
Common anxiety symptoms include feeling restless or on edge, irritability, muscle tension, feelings of worry, sleep disturbances, GI upset, and trouble concentrating.
A very common symptom is a feeling of restlessness. Sometimes referred to as agitation, this feeling of restlessness can be intensely stressful. When restlessness is affecting someone, they may express a feeling of unease or even show an urge or need to physically move, which can manifest as pacing, leg shaking, or other kinds of psychomotor agitation. Some people with GAD might channel this restless feeling into nail-chewing, plucking hairs, scratching, or otherwise feeling a need to move their body. Why does this happen? When someone feels acutely anxious, their body produces stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol that enhance the fight-or-flight reflex system. When we don’t have an appropriate outlet for these urges, we feel acute restlessness.
This symptom of GAD can be rather difficult to deal with if someone you love is temperamentally anxious. The anxious person can be surprisingly quick to anger, or might be snappy or easily annoyed. But why would feeling worry make someone irritable? In short, when a person is suffering from GAD, they frequently feel negative and unpleasant emotions. This causes them to feel mentally exhausted and drained, leaving them with less cognitive processing power to tolerate even minor stressors and irritants.
Irritability can come on in response to physical or emotional closeness. Irritability from physical closeness is a response to a feeling that your space is being invaded. This closeness can generate a feeling of pressure that worsens the overall mental landscape of worry and overstimulation. Physical closeness can also be irritating to an anxious person if it exposes them to loud chewing, smells, sniffs, or other things that might normally be annoying, but not overwhelming.
Irritability can also stem from emotional closeness. Even when someone has the best of intentions, the feeling of being emotionally drained that comes with chronic worry and fear can cause you to be snappy or annoyed, even with those closest to you. In an ironic twist, you might find their concern for your wellness to be worrying. You may be concerned that they will think less of you or find you weak. These worries make an already worried mind feel more overwhelmed, which leads to irritability and outbursts.
The constant sensation of worry that an anxious person experiences can manifest physically as excessive muscle tension. This is especially common in people who suffer from panic attacks, which are essentially sudden episodes of intense fear. The constant stress of GAD layered with the extra physical tension of a panic attack can cause muscle stiffness and soreness all over the body. One of the most common manifestations of muscle tension in an anxious person is bruxism, which is a fancy word dentists use to describe jaw-clenching and tooth-grinding.
One of the best ways to cope with muscle tension is through exercise. Routine stretching and the use of your muscles will help keep them toned and stretched. Meditation is another great way to help treat the symptoms of GAD, and mindfulness meditation paired with body scans can be especially helpful in treating muscle tension.
Feelings of Worry
The defining feature of GAD is a constant and overwhelming feeling of worry. When it is not pathological, worrying can be helpful: for example, worrying about your bills might help you develop a system to pay them on time or drive you to consolidate debt or take other positive financial steps. But when worrying becomes pathological, we need to find a way to cope with it.
A helpful way to reduce your feelings of worry is to evaluate your specific worries for solvability. Perhaps you are worried that your car’s engine has been running a little rough. This is a solvable worry, as you can just go to the mechanic to have them check your engine. If, however, you are worried that a massive solar flare will wipe out the earth’s electronics, there is nothing anybody can do about that. Accepting that some worries will never be solvable, and learning to cope with the uncertainty, is key to minimizing this symptom.
There’s nothing like a good night’s sleep! This is especially true for people with GAD, as they literally cannot get a good night’s sleep. First, the feelings of worry and fear make it hard to fall asleep. Instead of lying in bed and snoozing, people with GAD might find themselves lying in bed fretting about their various concerns. At its core, GAD is essentially a constant state of hyperarousal, which makes it hard to fall asleep. In a cruel twist of fate, worrying about falling asleep or about how much time one has to sleep can itself cause more worry and further disrupt the sleep pattern.
The mind-body connection is fascinating. One of the most interesting aspects of this tie between our mental and physical selves is found in the gut. GAD and other disorders of the mind are often associated with stomach problems. This is even true in the popular vernacular: we might say we had a gut-wrenching experience or that a thought or an experience made us sick to our stomachs. For whatever reason, the gut is intimately connected to our mind. People who suffer from GAD might find themselves nauseated or even suffering from cramps, heartburn, pain, or diarrhea.
Difficulty concentrating is a common symptom among emotional regulation disorders, including disorders like GAD. Recent research has shown that a majority of patients with GAD experience “clinically significant difficulty concentrating.” While there isn’t a concrete scientific explanation for this yet, it is thought that people diagnosed with GAD are devoting so much of their brainpower to worry and concern that they don’t have the bandwidth left over to deal with anything requiring concentration. Researchers have found that exercises in mindfulness meditation can be highly effective at restoring the ability to concentrate, which is intertwined with a reduction in other GAD symptoms. While therapy and medication can certainly help those suffering from GAD, it seems that meditation would be an appropriate activity to include in treating this unfortunate disorder.
Treatment of Anxiety
How can people who are suffering from these symptoms find treatment? As with many mental health disorders, the two best treatments are pharmacotherapy (prescription drugs) and psychotherapy (seeing a therapist). Many doctors will begin the treatment of GAD by prescribing patients an SSRI, a kind of antidepressant. Anxiety and depression share many symptoms, so it makes sense that an antidepressant could help. Sometimes, doctors will prescribe drugs known as benzodiazepines for anxiety, but these drugs have the potential for abuse and can become addictive.
Psychotherapy is another excellent treatment for GAD. This doesn’t mean laying on a couch while some Freudian psychologist probes you for feelings about your mother or father: that’s an outdated stereotype of psychotherapy. Modern therapy involved talking to a specially trained counselor who can help you understand where your feelings of worry come from and how to control them. The therapeutic technique known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT is highly effective for treating emotional disorders like GAD.
While these are the most common methods prescribed by doctors to treat GAD, alternative treatments can also be helpful. Exercise is a great way to treat GAD. Moving our bodies and muscles and burning energy can help burn off those feelings of worry and concern. Mindfulness meditation is also rather helpful in coping with the symptoms of anxiety. Focusing our minds and learning to relax and let go of thoughts helps us process the intense feelings of fear or worry that define GAD and similar disorders. However, as useful as exercise and meditation are, they are no substitute for proper medical care. The best way to treat GAD is to see a doctor for medication and find a therapist skilled in CBT who can help you cope. Adding exercise and mindfulness meditation will help these treatments succeed and will ultimately reduce the symptoms of anxiety.