Your body shakes, your mind races and worry about the future haunts your present. The stresses anxiety places on the body and mind are vast, and creep into the small nooks and crannies of all areas of health, like an undercurrent of angst waiting to bubble over.
And while anxiety is common, it is also commonly misunderstood. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders effect 18.1% of the US population annually, making it the most common mental health issue. While there are a variety of anxiety disorders including panic, social anxiety, post-traumatic stress, obsessive compulsive and phobia anxieties, in this article we’ll focus on generalized anxiety disorder, also known as GAD.
What Is Generalized Anxiety Disorder?
I’ve heard it said that anxiety is worry about the future; depression about the past. GAD is defined by “excessive and inappropriate worrying that is persistent and not restricted to particular circumstances.”
This disorder more commonly occurs with other mental health illness, including depression and the other anxiety-related disorders mentioned above, and physical issues such as irritable bowel syndrome, headaches and chronic or terminal illnesses.
Emotional Signs of Anxiety
Anxiety manifests in a variety of, at times, seemingly unrelated ways, including:
- Worry that is disproportionate and difficult to control
- Poor concentration
- Heightened noise sensitivity
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Constant, repetitive thoughts (rumination)
- Physical Signs of Anxiety
With the relationship of anxiety to an overactive sympathetic system, the physical signs and symptoms make sense. Before we delve into these physical signs of anxiety, let’s take a look at what the sympathetic system is and why we have it in the first place.
Eons ago during the earlier development of humankind, we lived in the wild rather than cities and villages, where life threatening situations could manifest in a moment. An attack from the proverbial saber tooth tiger required an immediate reaction. Any lag time and we could become dinner for a strong and agile beast.
Our sympathetic system is the clever and complex answer that ensured a prompt and appropriate response. In essence, it’s the flight or fight response which enabled our survival. This incredible response was designed for immediate and short term activity. Once the threat subsided, our opposite parasympathetic system is meant to step up. If the tide was turned and the tiger now lay on our dinner table, we need our relaxation system to up-regulate so we could enjoy our meal and digest the nutrients and calories required for use to function.
However, while effective in times gone by, chronic stress and challenges can mean a chronic overactivity of the sympathetic system. This brings with it a complicated and ongoing cascade of biological events, which may manifest in the multiple signs and symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder. These include:
- A dry mouth
- Loose or frequent bowel movements
- Tummy troubles
- Restlessness (both mental and physical)
- Muscular aches and pains
- Heart palpitations
While this disorder can severely impact a persons quality of life, there is much that can be done to help reduce the signs, symptoms and experience of generalized anxiety disorder. From someone who used to obviously and constantly shake and worry incessantly about, well, everything, I promise there is hope. Important strategies include:
12 Tips For Managing Anxiety
1) Practice Yoga
This ancient practice improves your ability to live in the moment; trying not to fall out of tree pose or wilt in warrior focuses the mind. The breath work, movement of the body and gentle mental, physical and spiritual connection all work together to support people with GAD.
2) Breathe In… 1,2,3… Breathe out… 1,2,3…
When stressed, our breath becomes shallow and our body responds accordingly. By slowing and deepening the breath, you are able to reset a burgeoning sympathetic response and calm your body and mind.
3) Focus On Your Circle of Influence, Not Your Circle of Concern
Ok, this is one of my Mom’s pearls of wisdom. I remember her saying this to me when, in my early teens (yes, a LONG time ago!), I was worried about the logging in the beautiful regions of our state of Tasmania. Do what you can, when you can, but try not to carry the weight of the world on your mortal shoulders.
4) Walk, Jog, Gym… Just Move
It’s a wonderful and little known fact that movement of the spine is the main brain nutrient, and as you walk, you positively effect your limbic system (your emotions center). No matter where your fitness level sits currently, choose a physical activity you enjoy and be active often.
5) Eat Well and Include…
Mental health disorders can alter our food choices, and, even whether we feel hungry at all. It is essential in the creation of our happy hormones, such as dopamine and serotonin, that we get enough vitamin B6, omega three fatty acids and zinc. To do this, either supplement with high quality, liquid based products, or (even better, and) include foods like chick peas, tuna and salmon, bananas, nuts, oysters, beans and free range eggs.
I know, this may sound like an odd recommendation. After all, we are taught play is for children, not adults. I’ve got to say, that teaching is fraught with danger. Play promotes our parasympathetic system and is just, well, fun!
7) Seek Support
GAD is a serious disorder that can suck the quality of life from a sufferer. It is not a weakness. I’ll say that again, generalized anxiety disorder is an illness, NOT a weakness. If you sustained a broken leg, I hope you would attend your medical doctor for the appropriate treatment. After all, setting a fracture correctly in place results in the best outcome. With GAD, you may need an expert to ensure the best results. Speak to your medical doctor, other health professional, a psychologist or a psychiatrist and promptly.
8) Laugh, Often If You Can
Mental health challenges cull laughter. Yet this simple act is powerful in reseting your body and mind. Hire comedies, watch silly YouTube videos (silly cats and dogs can be very therapeutic!), and spend time with your upbeat loved ones.
9) Address Other Anxiety-Provoking Challenges
To achieve the best result, a holistic approach is encouraged. There may be other reasons that cause or exacerbate anxiety and addressing these is important. Chronic pain may be better managed, concomitant depression will feed into anxiety and vice versa, hyperthyroidism, heart disease, respiratory disorders or an adverse reaction to a medication may be causative.
10) Herbal Remedies
Herbs like passionflower, valerian, camomile, lavender and lemon balm may assist with generalized anxiety disorder. This article on the Mayo Clinic website provides more information.
11) Cut Back On Caffeine
Caffeine is a known stimulant and can cause an increase in sympathetic activity. Swap your coffee for herbal tea, switch your cola for water and be careful if choosing pep-me-up pills or weight loss supplements which often contain this compound.
12) Incorporate Stress Management Techniques
Meditation, mindfulness and visualization techniques help to reduce and manage stress, and so contribute to a parasympathetic bent. If you love classes, chances are there will be some held locally. Between YouTube and other internet sources you’ll find self-directed audios and lessons. Or you can download freebies or purchase options directly onto your iPod.
While it may feel like you are doomed to experience generalized anxiety disorder forever, these approaches can quell the nervousness currently holed up in your body and mind. The shakes can quieten, the mind can rest and it is possible for that horrible undercurrent of angst to subside.
Prioritize your health and yourself and I look forward to hearing about your story of success.