Sometimes having anxiety is more than just stressing out about finals. Read about generalized anxiety disorder in the newest Headcase.

So you have one research paper, one oral presentation, a cumulative exam, and countless Orgo assignments due all in the same day? AND you’re trying to stay healthy, get enough sleep, make sure your friends and family know you’re alive, and make travel plans to get back home for the holidays?! AND FINALS ARE NEXT WEEK?!?!?!

While this is all beyond overwhelming, it’s important to listen to your body and be able to recognize the difference between anxiety and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). This condition is, unfortunately, much more common than you might think. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that 40 million U.S. adults suffered from an anxiety disorder in 2011. That’s about 18 percent of this country’s population! Read on to find out if this condition might be affecting you.

But first, as always, a few myths.

Myths

  1. Anxiety disorders always develop during childhood.
  2. The only way to treat anxiety disorders is through use of medication.
  3. Suffering from anxiety is not a big deal.

Facts

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the criteria to be diagnosed with GAD are the following:

  1. Extreme anxiety on more days than not for at least six months about numerous things
  2. Inability to control said anxiety
  3. At least three of the following symptoms (or at least one in children): restlessness, easily fatigued, incapacity to concentrate, muscle tension, sleeping difficulties.
  4. Anxiety resulting in impaired social, occupational, or academic skills
  5. Symptoms are not caused by any other substance or mental condition.

With regard to prevalence among different groups of people, it seems that this disorder affects twice as many women as it does men. Additionally, it is much less common in people over the age of 50. Some people describe having been anxious throughout their entire lives, while others say it creeps up on them gradually.

Co-morbidity, or co-occurrence with other disorders, is extremely common with GAD. Some commonly associated disorders are Major Depressive Disorder, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, social phobia, specific phobia, and panic disorder.

Looking through different psychological lenses, different causes can be determined. From a psychoanalytic viewpoint, experts say that this condition can be attributed to poorly developed defense mechanisms that prevent being able to cope with worry. Biologically, research suggests that there is a slight heritability factor in developing GAD, although this is still uncertain. The most widely accepted reasoning behind the development of this disorder has to do with neurotransmitters, particularly gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which acts to inhibit excitability in the nervous system; people with GAD have a GABA deficiency, causing excessive reactions to stimuli. Abnormalities among other neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and cortisol, may also impact the onset of this condition.

Treatments

Since people often seek treatment for physical symptoms, such as muscle tension or gastrointestinal discomfort, medications that target this area are used. They tend to be benzodiapzepine, such as Xanax or Klonopin. Recently, a new medication has been introduced—buspirone—which may be more effective in reducing anxiety, but beware: effects of this medication may take up to one month. Additionally, antidepressants are sometimes prescribed.

In addition to medication, therapy is highly recommended. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is considered the best type of therapy for this condition. It involves developing techniques of muscle relaxation, to treat physical symptoms, and cognitive restructuring to develop coping strategies in order to reduce psychological symptoms of anxiety.

If you think you may be suffering, do not hesitate to talk to Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at Wesleyan.

A University sophomore, Monica*, has experienced Generalized Anxiety Disorder.

“My symptoms were persistent negative thoughts that were very distracting and constant worrying,” she said. “At first, I thought this was normal…I was a freshman and I thought, ‘College is hard!’…. But then it began to affect my schoolwork, health, and personal relationships.”

Monica explained how she knew her anxiety was a problem.

“I was scared to go to the gym because it stressed me out being around so many people that I didn’t know, and I felt like everyone was watching me and judging me,” she said.

When Monica’s mother approached her with her concerns, Monica called CAPS. A counselor there diagnosed her with GAD and Depression in September of this year.

“I started going to counseling once a week, but now I go every other week,” she said. “They also gave me Zoloft [brand name for selective-serotonin-reuptake-inhibitors, or SSRIs], which is supposed to help with anxiety and depression. I think it’s been helpful so far, but it took a while to kick in. I would say I started feeling better about two months after starting my medication and therapy. It’s kind of hard to know if the medicine is working because I’m not sure what to look for, but at counseling, they are supposed to objectively decide if it’s doing its job.”

When asked if there are any tips she would share with college students who might be struggling with anxiety, Monica emphasized the importance of communicating—and going easy on yourself.

“Talk to people about how you are feeling,” she said. “Even if you feel uncomfortable reaching out to CAPS, your friends and family are good options too. And don’t beat yourself up about it—how you’re feeling is not your fault.”

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