What is Generalized Anxiety Disorder? (Plus, Advice From Someone Who Has It)

Generalized anxiety disorder, commonly known as GAD, affects about seven million people in the United States and even more worldwide. It’s fairly common, but it can be complex to understand and difficult to cope with at first. What is it? How do you know when you have it? Here are some answers to the most common questions surrounding GAD—plus, I partnered with Emily Hein, founder of Stress Eats, a blog that pairs food with knowledge to help eliminate mental health stigmas, for a few tips on how she handles her GAD.

What is GAD?

There are many different types of anxiety disorders, but GAD is an overarching anxiety about most aspects of life: work, relationships, finances, etc. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America describes it as a persistent and excessive worry about several different things; things you likely don’t need to worry about. Those worrisome thoughts become intrusive, and there is no particular external situation that makes them better—they’re always floating in the back of your mind. With GAD, some days are better than others, and you may experience anxiety on more days than not.

There may be times when you wake up and don’t think you can take on the day, but there will also be times when you can cope well and enjoy even the littlest moments. Everyone’s GAD situation is different, with some more severe than others, but people with GAD can definitely live promising, fulfilling lives. The first step is recognizing you have it.

How can I tell if I have GAD?

The most common sign of GAD is a constant feeling of nervousness or irritability, as if you’re always on edge about something. When you feel anxious, your heart rate might increase, your breathing might pick up, and you may start sweating. Some people experience a weak or tired feeling. Difficulty sleeping and concentrating are also common signs. Stomach aches or gastrointestinal problems are normal, too. Since the brain and body are so intertwined, your anxiety might result in nausea or stomach discomfort.

If you experience anxiety on more days than not for at least six months, you may have an anxiety disorder.

It’s important to note that stress and anxiety are not the same thing. If you’ve been feeling stressed about work or a relationship lately, it does not mean you have anxiety. With stress, an external factor is usually to blame, such as a big presentation or a falling out with a loved one. But anxiety is internal; your mind worries about situations regardless of their severity, and it can be very difficult to ward off those thoughts. Stress will pass, but you may always have anxiety.

I think I have GAD. Now what?

Millions of people have been diagnosed with GAD; you are not alone. But recognizing it is the first step to managing it. If you think you may have GAD, or any type of anxiety disorder, you should make an appointment with a doctor to discuss your symptoms. If you do have GAD, there are plenty of things you can do to help yourself.

Try meeting with a therapist or counselor to discuss what triggers your anxiety. A therapist may recommend cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, to help you explore and manage those triggers. CBT is a coping method that challenges your cognitive thoughts and behaviors and attempts to change them for the better. It’s a common way to manage anxiety.

Other tactics, such as meditation, can be great for managing anxiety as well. Meditating for a while each morning will start your day with a relaxed mind, which can be a great way to stave off any intrusive, anxious thoughts throughout the day. Developing a mantra to remind yourself you’re okay is another easy way to bring your anxious mind back down to normal levels. Remind yourself, “Nothing will come at me today that I can’t handle.”

Medication is also an option, but not everyone who has GAD needs to be medicated. There are plenty of other options for managing anxiety that you can try prior to medication, but talk to a doctor or therapist about which coping mechanisms are best for your situation.

Not every day will be perfect–and that’s fine

Anxiety is not curable, but that’s not a reason to lose hope. Millions of people experience some level of anxiety as some point in their lives; it’s normal, so you should not expect to be instantly cured after seeking treatment. However, anxiety is definitely manageable through methods such as CBT or meditation.

Emily Hein started her blog, Stress Eats, as a way of writing out her own thoughts about managing her GAD in an inviting way (hand in hand with food) that would intrigue others.

“Writing is, far and away, my most successful coping mechanism,” Hein says. “It’s always helpful for me to put all of my thoughts into words and find the meaning behind them.”

Hein, currently a senior at the University of Michigan, always felt that she struggled internally with her mental health but couldn’t put her finger on why until she was a senior in high school—when she realized she had GAD. Now, she finds relief in writing, along with reminding herself that she may not be perfect, but nobody is, and she is lucky to live the life she lives.

“Three of my best friends bought me a MantraBand that says “Love Yourself,” and I wear it every day,” Hein says. “Everything that happens—amazing, terrible, and everything in between—is meant to happen in order for me to learn how to love every part of myself.

Hein has been coping with her anxiety for several years now, but she understands that some days are better than others. “It’s completely okay to feel this way,” she says. She utilizes her own coping mechanisms to manage her anxiety regularly, and it hasn’t stopped her from loving who she is. She says that preparing herself for potentially anxiety-inducing situations has been helpful in managing her GAD. Now, she wants to inform others of anxiety disorders and end the stigma that surrounds mental health.

“I learned to embrace my whole self and rework my relationship with anxiety to be as healthy as it can be.” Follow along with her journey through her Stress Eats blog.

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