* Most of us are experts at worrying – anything from global warming to whether the kids are eating properly. But while worrying may seem like a natural response to uncertainty, for some it is a debilitating and chronic mental disorder known as generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), or the worry illness.
According to the most recent report from the 1999 National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, over 3 per cent of the adult population had been diagnosed with GAD, and researches estimate that between 3 and 10 per cent of us will be afflicted in out lifetime.
However, not all worrying is considered a problem. “Normal worrying is thinking about a problem when it arises,” says Dr Lisa Lampe, a leading Australian researcher of anxiety disorders and author of Take Control of Your Worry: Managing Generalized Anxiety Disorder. “You worry but it doesn’t actually take over your life.”
On the flipside, people with GAD experience excessive and inappropriate worry. Dr Lampe says some of her patients spend 60 to 80 per cent of their waking hours in a worries state. Most will also experience unpleasant physical symptoms such as fatigue and insomnia. Why? It seems worry triggers our “fight or flight” instinct, a survival mechanism that helps us cope with stressful or threatening situations through the increased production of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. But excessive worry sends the body false “fight or flight” alarms, and if the resulting hormones remain at high levels in your body, you are unable to relax.
Worry affects everyone, with women slightly more likely to suffer excessive worry than men. However, researchers believe GAD may be genetic – many suffers say they’ve been prone to worry since childhood or have a parent with the same propensity.
“Interestingly, people tend to know when they worry too much, “says Fr Lampe. “They come to be because they’re always worried about the future and can’t enjoy the present.”
This is because many excessive worries tend to assume the worst-case scenarios, and will go so far as to avoid situations that trigger particular anxieties. For instance, someone afraid of saying the wrong thing may avoid social events. Others can be overly concerned about catastrophes: “What if the disaster on the news happens to me or my family?”
Even minor events can set worriers off on a chain of what Dr Lampe calls the “What-ifs”. A concern about money may lead them to think, “If I don’t pay that bill I’ll be made bankrupt and my children will go hungry.”
We all think the worst sometimes, but perhaps we’d be a lot happier if we took deep breaths every now and again and concentrated on the brighter side of life.
1. Do you spend too much of your time worrying?
2. Do you think of yourself as a worrier?
3. Do you feel you can’t control your worry?
4. Do you feel your worry is out of proportion with your problems?
5. Does your worrying bother you or stop you from enjoying your life?
6. Does your worry leave you constantly drained or affect your sleep?
Treating Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)
“The good news,” says Dr Lampe, “is that GAD is treatable.” But a 1999 Australian survey found almost two-thirds of people diagnosed weren’t being adequately treated. And many have become dependent on alcohol and tranquillisers, which only compounds their problems.
Professional treatment is a much better alternative. Talk therapy is usually the first course of action, with anti-depressants being prescribed for some. But don’t expect to be lying on a couch and delving into the past. Most doctors advocate cognitive behavious therapy, an approach that teaches people anxiety management techniques (meditation, exercise, etc) to help change through patterns and break their worry habit.
By Marigie Borschke